Hay season a dangerous time for farmland wildlife

Tom VeneskyThere's a lot of stress that goes along with making hay. The weather, and hoping it doesn't rain, obviously tops the list.

But in fields with tall lush grass, avoiding wildlife when cutting hay often makes for an equally stressful situation.

Rabbits, field mice, birds and deer have all dodged my tractor and discbine as I cut a field of hay. Over the years I've found a few rabbits that didn't make it out of the way in time, and once I ran over a pheasant nest.

Obviously I wasn't happy about it, but from the cab of a tractor it's nearly impossible to spot a nest beneath the tall grass. I've been lucky to avoid fawns each summer, until this year.

As I started my first round in a field of waist-high orchard grass, I spotted a fawn bolting ahead of me through the grass. I eased down the throttle and watched it disappear, headed toward a woodlot at the end of the field.

Figuring the fawn made it to the safety of the woods, I finished the pass and began a round back at the top of the field. And that's when I looked back and saw the remains of the fawn on top of the freshly cut hay. I was so disheartened I was ready to shut the tractor down and quit.

But I couldn't. There are cows to feed, after all.

As I finished cutting the five-acre field, with no more mishaps, I thought about the fawn. It was the first one I hit in more than 20 years of farming, though I know plenty of other farmers who have hit a fawn or two while cutting hay.

Such instances seem to fall in line with those who contend that today's farming methods are responsible for the decline of some species of wildlife, such as pheasants.
But that just isn't true.

Yes, sometimes rabbits, pheasants and fawns are killed while cutting hay, but many more survive and benefit from the fact that there is an active farm. Deer, as we all know, thrive on corn and soybean fields. Birds and rabbits take advantage of perfect nesting habitat in a hayfield before it's cut.

Most of the time they are able to rear their young and move out before the hay is cut later in the summer.

I've seen broods of pheasants and rabbits of all sizes on my farm throughout each summer — evidence that they do survive and thrive.

And just to make sure they still have somewhere to go, I allow my fencerows to grow up and the corners of fields stand thick with brush. Once the corn starts to push and get thick in late June through the fall, it provides wildlife with an oasis of food and cover that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for farming.

Every farmer I know feels bad for accidentally hitting a rabbit nest or fawn in a hayfield, but the benefits that an active farm provides to wildlife more than compensates for those occasional losses. 

Categories: Pennsylvania – Tom Venesky

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