© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alfalfa hay in North Dakota


June has always been a month for making hay. Farmers make enough hay to last through the long winter months – before livestock could again be turned out to eat grass in pastures and meadows.

Hay is humble stuff. Farmers cut grass and dry it; then pitch it onto haystacks and into haylofts for later feeding for their cows and horses. Hay can also be the dried leaves and stems and flowers of red clover or short white clover.

Dairy farmers appreciate alfalfa hay most of all, because it gives the most protein for cow milk. The leaves are especially tender and relished by milk cows, the stems are not tough to digest, and the tiny purple, blue, and pink blossoms are lovely in the field and in the haystacks.

On this date in 1917, the Grand Forks Herald published an article about alfalfa’s superior qualities over other types of hay. The North Dakota Farm Experiment Stations promoted alfalfa both for its protein content and for its deep roots that helped it endure times of drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also boosted Grimm alfalfa to Dakota farmers because it produced more tons of hay per acre than did clover or grasses.

Hay became well-known scientifically, but alfalfa hay or clover hay may best be known for its fragrance. As Helen Keller once wrote: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all of the years we have lived.” The aroma of June hay brings back deep memories for North Dakota’s farm kids.

The smell of red clover hay is the best – it is haying heaven. Alfalfa’s essence is somehow greener than clover, but still hovers in the memories of those who fed it to cows and steers. Timothy hay or wild-grass hay leaves fewer traces in the nerves that govern scent, but just as many connections to the work of gathering it and pitching it. Anyone who has ever lain down on his back on piled hay has kept traces of the feel of hay, of its aroma, of its very nature and quiet force.

Hay permeates the past with its scent. As Walt Whitman once wrote, “The familiar delicious perfume fills the barns and lanes.” But maybe the sweet smell of hay is less well-known than it once was. Researcher Alan Hirsch of Chicago’s Smell and Taste Research Center investigated the powerful link between smells and memories. He found that people born before 1930 associated their past with natural odors – such as hay, horses, and home-baked bread. Those born after 1930 connected more with man-made scents like plastic, marker-pens, and Play-Doh. But no matter when those with a farm background were born, they always remember the truly-sweet aroma of fresh-mown hay, in June.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


“Alfalfa Showing Its Superiority,” Grand Forks Herald, June 29, 1917.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Forage Crops and Their Culture In Northern Nebraska and the Dakotas,” Farmer’s Bulletin #1511, (April, 1927), p. 7.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Effective Haying Equipment and Practices for Northern Great Plains and Intermountain Regions,” Farmer’s Bulletin #1525, (March, 1931), p. 2.

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), p. 152.

Helen Keller quoted in Minneapolis Star-Tribune, February 20, 1997, p. E1.

“What Does Your Memory Smell Like?” USA Today 120:2,560 (January 1992), p. 5.

“Fond Memories of the Odor of Plastic,” Omni 16:4 (January 1994), p. 33.

Steven R. Hoffbeck, The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000), p. 7-11.

Steven R. Hoffbeck, “Once Upon a Time, Chapter 40, Haymaking With Horses in North Dakota,” Our Neighborhood [Minot, ND] 4:5 (September, 1996), p. 6-7.