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Loose Ways of Making Leafy Loose Hay

 

PREFACE
When put on paper, the intricacies of haymaking have seldom been expressed in a way which does them justice. The modern scientific treatises coming from various Departments of Agriculture are mostly too dry and overly concerned with protein content and the issue of “efficiency”, i.e. costs per man-hour spent in the field in relation to tons of TDN harvested (while the environmental and human/cultural costs of the technological aids are completely disregarded!). Descriptions of the older methods, often by ethnologists who rarely participated, but rather observed the process “from the outside”, leave out many of the essential fine points of the art.

Ten years ago I attempted to contribute to the scant information on making loose hay by writing this article for the Small Farmer’s Journal. As is often the case, once the contents of my mind are put into words, it becomes less clear: here the gut feeling which helps me decide when is the right time for this or that step in the process and the whole sensual experience of it evaporates like the moisture from freshly cut grass on a sunny, breezy day…

Lynn Miller of S.F.J. is one of those rare editors who honours the style of the contributing amateur writer and prints the features without modifying them. It appears here with only minor corrections to the way it was printed in the Spring 1995 issue. On the other hand, as Kai (my son and present editor) tells me, this article could use more editing for clarity. However, he is threatening to strike if too much work is piled on him at once, so we hope it is adequate for now as is.

Peter Vido

 

Although the following is not specifically about the use of scythes, the principles of the follow-up steps in handling the cut forage and curing it–so that the resulting hay is nutritious and can be safely stored–are the same. Many of the hints are in fact applicable to baled hay as well, though this feature is obviously written for those who store their hay loose, whether they use a scythe or a horsedrawn sicklebar mower.

While “getting the hay in” may seem such a basic part of life on the farm, simple it certainly isn’t! It is a craft in every sense of the word, especially in climatic areas where we cannot count on three rainless days in a row.

Despite this, haying, or at least a good part of it, is our favourite “job”. However, there are stipulations for the favourite job categories–and, simply put, the more intimate handwork it involves, the better it feels.

We hay, using horses, about 45-50 acres (with some of it cut twice) and as a small family’s affair, we feel it is too much. We do not manage to do it all in the desired hand-style so the bulk of it is picked up by the hayloader. It has always amazed me how simple of design (even I can understand how it works), yet how efficient a hayloader is, quite capable, in heavy hay, of burying not one but two men on the wagon. (That is, of course, if they are trying to build a good, well-tramped two-ton load and the driver is not looking back all too often.)

Still, we have three objections to its use: while quieter than a tractor/baler unit, it is still relatively noisy, and we tend not to talk as much, or yell when we do, while it is in motion. It also knocks too many leaves off the hay for our liking, even though no more, maybe less, than a baler. But above all it shares with other machines this peculiar characteristic of sort of dictating the pace at which we work and thus stealthily nibbling away some magic from our lives. I will not elaborate on a description of this magic, for it has been discussed at length by many poetic characters over the centuries; and those who have experienced it (I hope most of you have) know what I am talking about anyway.

Luckily for us, enough of the hayfields here are too steep for the horses to comfortably handle the hayloader on, so there, even in the face of the time element, we have an “excuse” to handle it more by hand.

Our present “system” is a somewhat unusual combination of hand and horse-equipment methods. After nearly two decades it is still in the process of growth and experimentation as we learn how to do it better and enjoy ourselves more. Its object, however, will always be to get under the roof as many green and unpulverized leaves as possible. The rest of the herbage will come along in the process. This paradigm accomplished will not only satisfy us but also assure decent fare for our livestock, without the need for purchased protein, mineral and vitamin supplements.

The rules, which I allow myself to break from time to time, in a nutshell are as follows: I cut only two or at most four acres a day. Especially early in the season when the growth is young and will not get hurt by rain much, I do this every day it is not actually raining, mostly ignoring any inclement weather forecasts.

I rarely, if ever, rake hay that is dry, even just quite dry from the top, in spite of the fact that we have the very gentle New Holland 5-bar “modern” rake and I keep the horses always on the walk. It amazes me how often I see seasoned farmers in the middle of a hot, dry day zooming with a rake across the field, the old “H” in 3rd or 4th gear and dust just a-flying…

I prefer to rake in the evening when the dew just starts to soften the hay and there is not much of that dry, rattling sound to be heard as we move, often raking until we can see no more. (At this latitude it is light until 10 p.m. in July.) My second choice is raking in the morning with some dew still on. I do this often enough because the late part of the day is also our favorite time for loading. If the dew is very heavy, I wait a while, for I do not want to tuck in too much moisture under the windrow. But some is okay.

By the time the hay starts to rattle and the sicklebar will work better, I unhook the rake and start mowing until mid-day or so. Then we all have the noon meal and a siesta during the hottest part of the day. Often as I drift to the land of even greener hay fields, I feel compassion for my comrade farmers toiling out there in the heat. After the nap we either unload what was picked up the night before or I go mowing again.

Generally, when using the hayloader, we’ll leave the windrows out there in the heat and wind, especially if thoroughly dry, and only come to load when the evening dew almost starts creeping into them. That will only allow us a chance to pick up one load before it’s either too dark or the dew gets too heavy, depending on the level of humidity that day.

Another likely time for hayloading is the hour in the morning when the dew is not quite there anymore, but not quite gone yet either, or on the rainless, cloudy days when the humidity is high. There are also occasionally those days when no dew is felt by hand as external moisture at daybreak and, up to three or four years ago, this was an infallible sign of rain that day. Mornings like these we hustle out there and have picked up many a load by 7a.m., when it often starts sprinkling. Of course, we do this with hay that was rather dry the previous afternoon, but for a variety of reasons we did not get it all loaded before dark.

We also have loaded hay by hand or with the hayloader on those dry, breezy moonlit nights when the south wind picks up after sunset and gives us a warning that rain is a-coming. Night hay gathering is not an altogether infrequent activity for us. Many evenings stretch out into that late dusk when Faye, driving, can barely see the windrows to follow. I must say that is not my favourite time for tending the tireless hayloader. There is a reduction in balancing ability when the eyes cannot focus very well and I’ve had a few close calls.

It is about 1/4 mile all down hill from our top fields to the barn; taking some of the huge wagonloads down in the dark used to be quite an experience. I am used to it now and the horses know the way. At the steepest point the road happens to wind through a gully with trees on both sides which obscure whatever little night light there may be left. Sometimes I cannot see the horses in front of me. All I do is pray that the chain holding the “drag shoe” (a sort of brake on one wheel) will not break just now, or we’d likely all be on our way to those greener pastures. Faye walks behind.

But picking up cocks in the cool of the dusk, or even better by moonlight, are some of the high moments of our haying romance…

I realize that this may sound rather unorthodox, even a weird “system”, and admittedly I have not yet met anyone who does so much haying at these odd schedules…but we like it. It is not merely to be different, contrary or ridiculous. Maybe we are just plain dumb, but I can’t think of a better/easier way to bring in all those leaves.

We will likely try some new twist to our methods next year and another year after that. We’re still loose about this hay-making…as such it allows us not only the possibility but an outright temptation to play with it so. Trying out a baler in the above system would mean the breaking of maybe a case or two of shear pins per season or getting in some very spoiled hay, likely both.

 

Apart from more room needed in storage, getting hay in loose has only one additional disadvantage–it is slower; the way we do it, much slower, and thus not suited to big or “efficient” farmers of today. Yet in every other respect it has more potential advantage over field baling, either square or round bales. I say potential, because it is possible to make loose hay as dusty and inedible as any other way. There is a lot of fine baled hay made around the country which would be eaten ahead of many sloppily-made loose lots. (There is the odd reference made in some esoteric writings that technological inventions, i.e. machines, impart certain energies to their products that animals only accept for a lack of better choice, but the discussion of that concept is beyond the scope of this article.)

Livestock prefers hay that is “well-made” and the old fellows are likely thinking of bygone years when more attention and time was given to the hay-making process…and all hay was loose. I believe animals dream of stuff that is green, soft and leafy with a touch of flowers “for effect” and smelling so as to leave no doubt that God imbued it with its heavenly fragrance. But alas, not all dreams appear to come true, and although the bulk of our hay is “dream-like”, some is not.

The books tell us it should be 16-20% moisture content in order not to spoil in storage. Since most farmers do not have expensive moisture meters or do not take the time for the simple “weigh, oven-dry and weigh again” method, they instead go by feel. Mostly, or even always, feel should suffice. Yet many a farmer has been fooled by hay that seemed to be dead dry to the touch when picked up in the middle of a hot day (be it baled or loose) and ended up with dusty or outright moldy feed for his stock. The cause is obvious–the “dead dry” hay contained internal moisture hidden away from the mere touch of the hand. The old tests of twisting a handful of hay or scraping the epidermis of the thickest stems with one’s thumbnail are certainly worthwhile aids, though, to my mind, they too give room for error; particularly if time is not taken to get the true average sample from an irregularly drying field in which the composition and density of the herbage may vary considerably.

The objective is to let the internal moisture escape while losing as few leaves as possible. The prevalent modern equipment has partially solved the challenge by crushing the stems, though there is a price to pay there as well. However, even though horses can pull a “T-200″ which in turn can haul and operate a haybine, I will drop this subject here, for using such technology is, to my mind, out of the context of our style of haymaking by a long shot…

The more natural escape of moisture from curing hay is hindered by the fact that the leaves (which, while living, act as capillaries of the plant’s lifeblood) dry much faster than the stems. This slows down, to a large degree, the thorough curing, especially on dry, windy days when the all-too-quickly shriveled leaves “lock” the moisture in the stems, so to speak. If luck is with the farmer and the dry weather continues, the stems will also get dry enough to bale. Yet by that time all the leafy/flowery portion of the hay (which the sicklebar naturally left on top) are prone to turn to hay dust when approached by a machine, be it a horsedrawn rake or a baler.

Now there is a firmly established fear in many areas to rake the hay before it is almost dead dry. In fact, the rake is sometimes used merely as a tool to make the windrow accommodate the pick-up width of the baler. Often around here I see one tractor raking just ahead of the one baling. The fear has some merit, but I believe it has its conservative roots in the times of dump rakes, which are incapable of ever turning their “hippity-hop” windrows over again. But the now more prevalent “side-delivery” rake was not only specially designed to expose the stems and thus tuck away the leaves on its first pass (if used in the direction of the mower) but also to nicely invert the rows, either after the rain or for the purpose of more uniform drying.

I must admit, it takes more driving skill (which I do not always muster) to do this perfectly on irregular and side-hilly fields. Because of this, and also as we want to handle the rained-on hay ever so gently (more so with the rather mature, late-in-the-season cut hay) we often do the turning by hand with wooden hayrakes. With two or three people this goes surprisingly fast and we can give special attention to the very thick, high density sections and even fluff them a bit by hand. Of course, we might only get caught having to do this with a couple of acres at a time. The more productive, larger scale operations might find this a formidable task.

Not having raked a drying field prior to an extended period of rain (which eventually will spoil it) of course offers the “easy way out”–leaving it there to feed the field; whereas previously raked heavy windrows must be picked up, or they will temporarily kill the grass underneath. We tend to take this chance and have only had to pick up the resulting inedible, spoiled hay a couple of times in many years.

Now, I’d like to emphasize that no absolute rules of “always” or “never” should be applied to the art of hay-making and the old adage, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” is rather fitting here. Not only do the various geographical localities dictate their own rules; in fact every farm may be a special place where special guidelines fit the picture. These too need to be flexible, for not only the obvious weather patterns but also the botanical composition of the hay affect the rules.

Young, juicy and/or predominantly leguminous fields will naturally require much more attention than a pure grass stand, especially if the latter was cut rather late in the summer. Time-wise, our haying schedule spans both extremes of the season. We begin haying a week or two before even the more progressive farmers of our area, not because we want to beat them in getting hay of higher protein content, but because we generally need about 6 weeks to get the first cut in and the last of the 50 acres will be plenty mature by then. We start with some pastures which at that time are getting ahead of the grazing livestock. I do not worry (as I used to long ago, when I farmed more “by the book”) about cutting our fields at 10% or even 50% flower stage.

All laboratory evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is more to nutrition than protein. We are an altogether too protein-conscious nation, and quite malnourished in other more subtle but nevertheless real elements which have as yet escaped the test tubes of science. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but suffice it to say that if I had only one field to cut, I’d wait until 90% of it was in bloom.

The blossom to me is synonymous with life-giving properties, whether easily isolated or not. All herbalists, past and present, harvested medicinal plants (with rare exceptions) at the time when the insects also harvest nectar. Nourishment and medicine are difficult to separate, I reckon, and I prefer to think of them as one…and from yet another point of view, a plant’s purpose is to beautify the Earth with its flowers, feed the bees, make some seeds, and have themselves a good time. But let’s pretend for the sake of this haymaking discussion that they were placed here by God to “serve man”, directly or otherwise, and we can feel justified in treating them any way it suits us…

In any case, most farmers certainly realize that forage cut prior to the peak of its life (i.e. at the “ideal nutritional stage” of growth) does not want to let go of its moisture all too quickly. If “put on the spot” and left exposed in the swath on good drying days, it will of course eventually succumb. But interim it will try one last prank of its life–it will appear really dry but it will not be so, hence the untold tons of spoiled hay.

There is an old saying here in New Brunswick: “Hay will only sweat once”. While taking it literally may be a little foolish, it nevertheless portrays a characteristic of drying grass. It prefers to dry slowly, and sort of sweat its life force out rather than just lie there and die quickly. So the reasoning behind the adage is that if given a chance to go through this process in the field it will no longer sweat in the barn, i.e. heat too much and consequently mold. That is why, supposedly, cocking (or “coiling”) came about, besides just reducing the area of grass exposed to possible rain. Those who built the first cocks have long been nourishing the rootlets of many generations of grasses, so we’ll never know what they had in mind.

One neighbour of mine in Ontario told me that they would “coil” hay which was still a bit “tough” so they could get on to the still uncut acreage and leave the coils to dry/cure for 2-3 weeks. When asked how they built them, he simply said “put a few forkfuls on top of one another and tap it lightly”. A New Brunswick old-timer told me they built cocks for the hay to sweat, and that was the only way to make good hay when he was a young lad. Regardless of the weather, they cocked it every night (even of the day it was mown) and spread it out in the morning, repeating the process until it was dry enough to be brought into the barn. His instructions for building cocks were much the same–not much to go on, but it sounded simple enough.

Over the years we have learned many fine points of simply “a few forkfuls on top of one another.” They ultimately need to be learned by experience, but I’ll try to give a few pointers to avoid at least some disappointments for those who want to try this. For it must be remembered that hay in poorly built cocks with a day or two of rain on them may be worse off than if not cocked at all. I prefer to start with a sort of doughnut-shaped base, which must be slightly heavier on the downhill side of a slope to give the cock a level foundation.

We proceed by taking forkfuls from the windrow, adding them on so as to keep the center always higher than the sides. I tend to start this process already in the row by laying one forkful over the next part of the windrow at right angles. Separating forkfuls is best done with upward lifting motion than sideways pulling–remember, gentle is the word in any case. Depending on the density of the hay, two to four forkfuls can be laid crisscross on each other, then brought to the base and laid on top.

Locating the base 10-20 feet along the windrow allows you to bring the hay from both sides of the cock and thus save steps. We usually build them between two rows and use the hay from both to minimize walking. As the layers are added, use your body and hands to settle the hay gently and keep the cock straight, carefully kicking in the base all around to avoid a squat form. You ideally want to see rows of shaggy mane mushroom caps rather than Liberty Bells when you look at the finished field. Wind loves to play tricks on cocks, sometimes nudging them over before we leave the field, and the poorly made ones go first.

To finish off the cock, add a sort of rain cap using a forkful or two of the dampest hay in the vicinity, carefully laying it in such a way as to drape the stems along the slope to guide the rain off. At times, anticipating heavy rain and having a freshly cut field nearby, I have gone into a bit of extra trouble to put a small forkful of the very green grass on top of each cock. This is a superb rain cap if put on right, especially if made more of grasses than legumes.

We have had apprentices here at times, or visitors wanting to help, and I notice that while some people get the principles of cock building as soon as they see a few made, others may never make a good one. If one person in a family or group has the “knack”, it may be better for the others to bring the hay to the site for the builder. Personally, however, I can do a better job if I get my own forkfuls prepared right from the windrow rather than working from large randomly-piled bunches.

Children of nearly any age can help by raking up the bits of grass left by the forks of the big people, moving it toward the next site while an adult is finishing the last one. These bits can be used to start the base of the next cock. From about 10 years of age they can learn to build them on their own.

Not bound by any one tradition, we build cocks of various sizes. Obviously, the larger the cock, the less hay is exposed to rain, but it will also cure much slower. Ours will range from three feet in diameter with juicy young hay early in the season, or at times with second cut hay, all the way to rather oversize ones six feet wide. While density of a particular field will influence us somewhat, as will hovering dark clouds, these should play but a minor role; best be guided by how dry the material is and how long the cocks are likely to stay there. This I feel at a loss to explain adequately on paper. Large heavy cocks of rather green hay will shed rain well but may sweat to the point of molding before they cure. Beginners will need to have this happen, likely several times, before they get the feel of what moisture level will work for what size of cock and what weather conditions.

We do not intend to spread these out again and put them back together like in the good old days, though occasionally it has to be done. The most we plan on is to either gently upset the whole cock for some time (say 1 to 4 hours depending on weather) before picking them up, so as to expose the bottom, which is now perhaps even wetter than when first made. The extension of this step is to make two upside-down bunches, or even more if we want to rush the drying. But we always figure on picking them up once they are taken apart, for it is hard to make them as rainproof again.

 

There are other in-field hay drying systems, all of them likely better than the above-discussed simple cocks that sit on the ground. They all need some preparation, in terms of extra materials, besides a hay field and a fork. The improvement comes from having the hay stay up off the ground. One of these is the tripod.

The only explicit information on tripod haymaking I’ve ever come across is in Newman Turner’s Fertility Pastures. It consists of lashing three approximately 7- to 8-foot long poles together at the top. (We drilled holes through each and connected them with wire.) Once stood up, cross poles are nailed (or wired or twine-tied) at the base about a foot from the ground. They project about a foot beyond the sides of the uprights and are 6 to 7 feet long. Then, about half the distance between the horizontal poles and the peak, we string a wire which is wrapped around each upright.

Start by draping forkfuls of hay on the base cross poles going around and up. The walls of hay will gradually get thicker, as while the inward leaning uprights dictate the inner shape, the outside walls should be kept as vertical as possible. Approximately five feet from ground level, the inner walls will meet. If the hay is still rather green, do not pack it down but build as lightly as you can. Top off with the greenest forkful you come across. A well built tripod with a nice cap can be improved by a piece of tied-down canvas (or plastic, if you like to handle that stuff) will be quite all right to spend half a summer out there, though after drying thoroughly will obviously not improve in quality. Newman Turner calls this the only really weatherproof haymaking system.

We tried the first tripods in 1977 and still make them occasionally, though in the fields where the hay is. Turner uses a buck rake to gather the loose hay to the tripod site. This way he says two experienced builders can put up about 1500 lb. of hay per hour (about three tripods’ worth), not counting the person on the buck rake.

Now we mostly build the tripods near our barns from wagon loads of hay which was loaded still rather green before impending rain. It takes much less time to pick it up with the hayloader than to cock it, so in our loader-accessible fields we sometimes make this choice. Such hay may be put up on tripods and later moved to the barn for storage, or may stay there until early fall when feeding gradually begins, with the animals still on pasture. This may be hay of as fine a quality as we would manage to get, with most of its leaves still intact. Even though sometimes loaded with the hayloader and more often by hand, it was yet green enough that leaf-shattering was minimal. I really prefer to save this sort of hay for early spring feeding when our lactating animals appreciate it most.

I would say it has about 35% moisture, about the same as we used to try for to chop up into the so-called “low moisture haylage” we’d put in our small (10′x 20′) upright silo. The unscientific old-time test for this was tightly squeezing a handful of chopped hay, and if the resulting wad will expand again, slowly, it is be about 65% dry matter. I mention this for the benefit of those who may have experienced how wilted the hay is to be (before it’s chopped) for low moisture haylage. Now that we do not use a tractor at all, the little silo stands there pitifully, a relic of now unneeded technology.

Again, as with the cocks, do not feel restricted to Turner’s seven- to eight-foot pole size of tripod. Smaller ones are easier to build, carry to the site, and will take even greener hay, but at some point there is an economic co-efficient with regard to all factors considered as a whole. Find out what it is for your specific situation.

Other aids to hay drying include the extended sawhorse-style racks. In more recent times this effect was accomplished by stringing a series of wires with ratchet tighteners; this system is briefly discussed in Turner’s book. In Eastern Europe and most likely elsewhere, saplings of trees (often spruce), pointed at the bottom and with some branches remaining, are stuck into the ground (a hole is first made with a steel bar) and hay built around it. This also puts the hay effectively up off the ground to prevent molding and a much more vertical and taller shape was possible than with the cocks.

 

Photo 1. Click on image for larger version

In my native Slovakia, the most prevalent is the tent-like structure (PHOT0 1). The framework consists of two upright poles, roughly four feet apart, onto which three to five horizontals are nailed–resulting in a kind of short, wide ladder. The uprights protrude a little on top and two sections like these are leaned against each other without further need for tying or nailing. The peasant’s homemade form is made of saplings, as it is cheaper for them to take the time to gather saplings than to buy sawn lumber. In America the opposite may seem to be true.

 

Some more progressive co-operatives, no doubt also caught up by the elusive concept of efficiency, do manufacture the frames out of lumber in standard dimensions (the homemade ones come in many “personal” sizes) and pairs of them are often hinged on top. There are many of these used still, and driving along roads in off-haying time one can see them stacked up as snow fences in some parts of Slovakia. When covered with hay, they add a romantic touch to the countryside. They doubled as little free motels for weary foot travelers in the past and to some degree still do today. Hitch-hiking or tramping during the summer, one need not lug a tent along, since they certainly are more frequent in distribution than are motels here, and not only along the roads…and not only for bona-fide travelers or farmers taking a siesta in the midst of their work. One old Slovak folksong expresses it rather boldly; in abbreviated form it goes something like this:

 

“Come boys to our village, there are many girls here
The meadows are cut; the cocks are built…
Some of grass, some of clover,
and I won’t be my mother’s little girl forever…”

 

 

Photo. 2. Click on image for larger version

Somewhat less common is the drying rack (PHOTO 2), the building of which is rather self-explanatory. It is stood up facing the prevailing winds and is used by those who do not expect to keep the hay there for a long period. It is by far the quickest-drying system of those mentioned here, because of the thin layer exposed to wind, but the total expenditure of energy per volume of hay thus handled is also highest.

Now I must stress that the aforementioned 20% maximum moisture content is still a good guide for the final storing, though as you may have guessed only a portion of the hay we pick up at those odd, “moisture-laden” hours would qualify. To stuff a barn full and forget about it would be inviting trouble. We are rather blessed when it comes to hay storage: our six different haymows provide a little over 2600 square feet of surface area, which allows us to play with it further under the roof.

We prefer not to unload the wagons the day they were loaded (though at times we do), but let them sit at least overnight so as to let the hay sweat some more. To assist this, we carefully and thoroughly tramp it while loading, which not only evens out the moisture, but is another effective step toward safe storage. I have this image in my head (but haven’t heard it explained scientifically) that the water element (or call it vapor) ends up moving from within the stems to the spaces in between, sort of unattached to anything in a serious way. It sits there loosely, yet eventually would cause molding if this process happens in a batch of hay which will not be further opened–in a finished bale–or if we unloaded the wagon right away without pre-sweating. Waiting until the next day will give the moisture a chance to escape to the drier surrounding air.

There are various indicators that tell us how and where to unload. There is the feel of the hay as we pick it up in the field, its smell the next morning, or even the resistance of the hay as I poke in the pitchfork or the unloading harpoon. The dryness of the hay previously unloaded will partly determine which haymow we use (and whether it is destined for sheep, donkeys or horses).

In the sheep barn we unload by hand into an 18×45-foot mow affording plenty of room to spread out the hay, if needed, on a two to three foot deep fluffy layer. Usually in another day or two this can be moved to the back, tramped into a deeper level while new, greener hay is added in a light layer over the floor area and drier hay. We also have long poles strung along the sides of the mow where particularly green bunches can be more exposed to air in the cross draft of the barn.

In the horse/donkey barn we unload with a “harpoon” pulled up, via a rope and pulleys, by the horses. (We much prefer the single-pronged one to the more common double style. It is considerably easier to drive deep into a load, especially one that is tramped tight or has sweated a while.) The huge forkfuls (a well-built large load should come off in 4 to 6 forkfuls) are spread over the mow, with attention being paid to the warm spots; these will develop in the centre of the wagon load and/or in the patches of hay from near the wooded edges of the fields and the denser-than-average fertile hollows where drying is slower. To sort out these spots, working barefoot helps a great deal. (I rarely even put on shoes during the summer.) Your soles become instant automatic moisture meters. But it’s okay if you like shoes; in time you can feel the condition of each forkful, even through the wooden handle, if you pay attention to the little details.

The less dry hay is lightly thrown to the edges of the loft and is not tramped at this time, while the drier hay is placed in the middle where the loads drop. Of course, each harpoonful is spread carefully before the next one is dropped, to enable one to remove the hay without a struggle when feeding. Friends of ours, new to loose haymaking, ignored the principles by which the hay can so effectively hold itself together. Winter feeding became nigh impossible. And not knowing of the old-fashioned hayknife, they ended up cutting it out with a chainsaw.

To make the best use of the space, and to prevent over-drying of the hay in subsequent months, the hay is tramped well–right away, if dry enough; otherwise just before the next wagon is unloaded. The six-mow situation allows this to be a week or more if need be.

 

I hoped this would be self-evident, but in conclusion I’d like to point out that loose haymaking, be it with a hayloader or by hand, need not be as complex as the above methods may appear. Trying to put it on paper sure was more difficult than doing it. You can skip the moonshine work, and let just a little dew fall on the very dry hay to save a lot of the leaves. That little siesta in the heat of the day is a blessing that the horses also appreciate. (Napoleon, by the way, used to take a nap even in the battlefield with bullets flying by…can’t farmers be as relaxed as a general?)

Cocks can also be made considerably less carefully and thus more quickly where and when the rains are not so frequent. Using a tedder will effect more even drying and thus less leaf shattering with less hand work than we do presently. I used an old New Idea 4-bar rake/tedder for several years–until it broke–always, again, with a little dew or rather freshly cut hay. It did speed things up, and I hope one day to find one of those light, old kicker-tedders that one horse or a team of donkeys could pull. In the meantime, as you can see, we like to play with the hay as little kids may play in a sandbox.

Having half the acreage or less to deal with would be even more fun, although we might spend the time saved by going to the more primitive hand methods completely. This is the direction we are headed and last summer may have been the last one for our use of the hayloader. So we need to part with some livestock. How much I wanted to do this, and why, came home to me on one perfect mowing day last summer when the last grasses of the season were laid flat. Paradoxically, everything worked as smoothly as one could hope for…

I was not intending to cut the whole, for this farm rather level, 8-acre field. It was late in July, the weather promising and the hay plenty mature. But more than this, it was somehow the mood of the afternoon that caused me to break our usual 2-4 acre per day rule. Steady breeze kept the horses, who by now were in fine athletic condition, cool enough to need only the occasional “breather”, and they seemed to walk even faster than usual. The sicklebar was sharp, well-tuned and clicked trouble-free. It took less than 4 hours.

When finished, I sat there in the seat a long while, reflecting. I counted my blessings–the field with its gift of grass, the horses and the mowing machine. And no hornets had built a nest in this field–for at that time of year their pretty homes are growing by the day in the number of occupants and nobody driving a team mower likes slicing one of them in half. Also but very few mice, as far as I could tell, met up with the deadly knife. What else could a horse farmer ask for?

I may have felt elated or even smugly proud since I plowed that field, raised the horses, and spent long, greasy hours tinkering with the mowing machine. I had a hand in the process. Yet I realized, that in the heart of the experience, while the steel and the grass met, I just sat there on an iron seat with my feet touching the cast footrests, my body absorbing the vibration of the machine. Yes, it did beat the days when I vibrated to the roar of the tractor’s engine, enveloped in diesel fumes, but there was still something missing.

I looked over that large field and pondered how many days it would have taken me to cut it with a scythe. Clearly it would be too long for the present reality of this farm’s needs. Yet I know that I missed out on some of the intimacy that my soul craves while I work. Moping would be pointless for I also knew what I would do about it.

It was, after all, a happy day!


Here, with short comments, are three photos depicting the technology we mostly used during the twenty years prior to 1995. (Before that I was an all-tractor farmer in Ontario, Canada.)

This is how I used to cut forage before graduating to the scythe; here, opening a pass around a field of oats and vetch, which as a “pioneer crop” (following the breaking of older pastures) we would cut at the early milk stage and make into hay.

Click on photo for large version
Raking with the relatively modern ground-driven five-bar rake. Made for use with a tractor, this style of rake when pulled with horses is the least damaging to the hay leaves (next to a hand-operated wooden rake).

Click on photo for large version
The contraption being pulled behind the wagon is a hayloader, which picks up and conveys the hay upward, while the person on the load distributes it in an organized manner, tramping it down as he works. Whenever the horses need a break, that time should be spent tramping the load as much as possible. Shown here is about half a load.

Click on photo for large version

In both parts of Canada where I’ve farmed, hayloaders can be obtained anywhere from free to $100. Even if they sat at the edge of the woods for 30-40 years, they are relatively easy to bring back to life. They can be pulled with a pick-up truck, and half a ton of hay can be loaded fairly quickly.


Apr. 2005