Even on a small farm, when harvest call comes, you drop everything and respond. Crops do not wait for weekends or comfortable temperatures or even regular work schedules.
The hay man called the other day. It’s sure that haying will be done in hot weather. Otherwise, you could not make good hay. Around here, the grower is most pleased if his grass can be cut in June, but hay harvest needs days of dry heat to turn the fresh cut grass into a storable commodity and often it is July before the weather is reliable. Once the grass is cut, the hay man is committed: it has to be brought in before rain finds it, or the crop is lost.
When the grass is near maturity, but not yet blown to seed, the stalks are around 18 inches tall. If it’s allowed to go all the way to seed, you might think you’d get a double crop: grain and grass. But the grass will begin to lose protein as it matures. So the job of the hay farmer is to judge when his grass is at top form, and to guess at the weather ahead. One morning he walks out, bends the grass in his fingers, looks at the sky, listens to the weather report, and says, yes, today I will cut. From this moment until the baled hay is either sold or under cover, he is gambling for his crop. Here in the north end of the Willamette Valley grass growers get one cutting. As your old grandfather used to say, “Make hay while the sun shines.”
Here’s a field that has been cut.
Notice how the cut grass falls into windrows. After a day or so, depending on weather and temperature but when the grass is dry on top, it’ll be raked over to expose new grass to the sun. Not until the cut hay is dry throughout does the baler come around to compact it into tied bundles.
In the olden days, once the hay was safely dry, everyone went to work gathering it into haystacks.
Haystacks take up a significant amount of space on a farm. They also require skilled construction to keep them in good shape through the winter. A haystack is not just a fine place to recline
in late summer. It has to shed rain and snow, and keep its integrity through winds. And your farm has to be so organized that you can bring the animals to the haystack as you choose, or can transport quantities of loose hay to the animals.
This image from the 1950’s, Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives, shows a farmer using a stationary baling machine.
Crews had to bring the hay to the baler, but it could then be compressed into tied bales and stored under cover in a barn, taking a fraction of the space required for loose hay. A person wonders how many farmers baled themselves in these things, along with the hay.
The mule on the right is running a rake that pushes the cut hay into the press. You can’t see what is providing power to the press — it’s out of the picture to the left (click on the image to see the whole picture with a man driving the rake). It could have been steam, or animals on a treadmill. This image is small, but you can see the bales handled by the men. Note also the small girl in the sun hat, posing in the middle of all the work.
Imagine the boon to farmers when they could connect a mechanical hay baler to their gas-powered, internal combustion driven tractors. It was the birth of the most cantankerous machine on a farm:
You can’t see the business side of the baler from this view (I pulled off the road to take the picture of one in operation, and the hay crew was giving me some pretty sideways looks as I pointed a camera at them and then and jumped back in the car before traffic came along the road), but you can see a finished bale making its exit on the ramp to the right end of the machine. On the other side of the baler is a rake that scoops the hay from the windrows. A turning auger carries it into the baling chamber. A plunger inside the chamber jams the hay tightly and a cutter trims the ends off the bale as it is born. If you look back at the close-up photo of the sample bale above, you can see the structure of the “flakes,” sometimes called “books,” that result from the strokes of the plunger. A spring inside the chamber keeps the bale compressed until enough hay has been jammed in to make up a whole bale. When the bale reaches the required size, the machine wraps string around it from spools, through 2 or 3 needles that move in time with the plunger, and ties knots in the string. The knotter also cuts the string. It takes about 2 seconds to tie up the bale. Imagine it! Imagine what is going on in that machine while the needles are moving, the plunger is moving, the hay is moving, and the operator is maintaining the tractor speed so the supply of hay is constant. If all goes well, the formed bale continues out the chute and drops to the ground, beautiful and tight. The baling machine has so many things going on at once, its maintenance and adjustment are the work of a patient man. Or of one with a splenetic vocabulary.
When we get the call, the baler is already at work. The thing about buying hay from the field (and this is where you get the lowest price if you are buyer, because the farmer is not picking up his crop and storing it; you are) is, when they call is when you go get it. The grower is not going to let it sit around waiting for your leisure. So if you had plans, they change.
Here is a field of bales in the light of a summer afternoon. What is prettier than that field neatly cut, and bales arranged in rows? The coyotes and hawks are happily working the mowed fields, too, picking off the suddenly exposed rodents in the grass.
Now is where the work begins for us. All those pretty bales have to be picked up, stacked on a truck and trailer, tied down, driven home, taken off, moved to the barn, and stacked once more. And then, in the morning, we do it again. We have arranged ahead of time to borrow a trailer. We have even borrowed a 15 year-old to help. High school wrestlers make good hay crew. As we drive to the field, the air throughout the county is sweet with the smell of cut grass. Every pickup on the road is either burdened with its load of bales, or chaff is blowing from its bed. Here are Richard and our good friend Elton bucking bales onto the trailer. Elton must be a good friend to show up a 7 in the morning on a day promising temperatures of 90F.
Click the picture to make them as big as they are! Neither of them is the 15 year-old. Here he is!
Click him and he’ll look more like he’s earning that sweaty brow.
We made three runs with truck and trailer this year. Once home, we set to lifting each bale over again, off the vehicles this time, and onto the hay elevator. Now this elevator: Machines You Have to Love, Part II. It’s an ancient thing, rusty in places, quirky and inspired… it sits idle most of the year, and then springs to life when we ask it to. In fact, it sat idle for so many years on a bluff over the highway waiting for us to buy it that the phone number had faded off its For Sale sign. We had to guess at the last number and make several tries before we connected with the seller, who was not sure he remembered where he had parked it with the sign on it. But this little machine, simplicity itself, takes the bales from Richard’s string-worn hands and carries them right up into the hay loft where I receive them and stack them tightly under the roof and between the trusses. Here is the delivery end of the elevator.
We made a photo of me, too, dropping a bale onto the elevator, but as usual, the work looks bigger than I do.
There is no point trying to click me bigger. That’s all I am. We did have one extra fellow in the crew, who shows up most times when hay is moving around the place. That would be William, doing his best to lighten the load…
So at last, after a couple of days of good labor in great heat, we have our barns stuffed full of fine, sweet, new hay. Every muscle is awake and crying out. If anyone tells you women don’t sweat, send them haying. It’s kind of nice to know, though, that at 55 I can still lift 50# bales all day in the heat, and can get up the next morning, too.
Finally, here is one of my favorite haying pictures. It shows the whole day in the field: In the big mirror you can see Richard looking at the last bale in the field, and in the small mirror, you can see that field, that bale, and the truck that will carry it home.