We just finished making this year’s hay at our family farm.
Haymaking is an art….. It is exhausting….. It is glorious.
It is worthwhile to experience it at least once. You might even want to add it to your bucket list. For city folks, you may be wondering what is this big deal about hay? Hay is like the stuff we find in small bales in October right?
Like most things in life, there is a lot more to hay than first realized. When you are done reading this article, you will have incorporated some key knowledge of country living and keeping animals. It is hoped you will be able to vicariously enjoy the process to some extent as well.
What is Hay?
Hay is dried grass or possibly other green plants. It is not straw. While straw is a dried plant, it is made from the stems of cereal grasses such as wheat or oats after the grain has been harvested. By harvest-time, the stems are turning brown and have almost zero nutritional value. Straw is good for bedding animals. It is worthless for food.
Grass on the other hand is excellent food for grazing animals. It is even appreciated by pigs, chickens and many other animals. Even my children like to eat it on occasion (I know that sounds strange, but then children raised on a diverse farm can be rather strange to some people, including their parents).
In the spring, grass often grows faster than the animals can eat it. When that happens, it can be mechanically harvested, sun-dried and stored for later consumption such as the wintertime or periods of drought.
What is Good Hay?
If one is to make or use hay, one needs to know what good hay is like. I remember going to an Ag field day with some of my children and participating in a hay judging contest. The judges were county Ag agents armed with a sophisticated sensor and lab analysis. The participants had to use their eyes and their noses. My children also used their taste buds – surely the ultimate test!
Good hay should smell good. It should be a pale green color, and have that wonderful smell of freshly dried hay. There should be no mold. Mold grows when the hay is not dry enough when it is put up. Hay is brown if it sat in the sun too long before raking. If the hay is made from grass that is too mature or has been rained on after cutting, it won’t be as sweet smelling (or tasting for those who care to).
So how did we do in the hay judging contest? We came in at the top, but I owe much of it to my children who shared with me how the better bales tasted.
Making Hay is an Art
The art of haymaking is something that must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Hay can come in a wide variety of quality. You would think that drying grass would be pretty simple. It probably is if you just took a handful and put it in the microwave. Try cutting acres of it to dry naturally in the sun… without getting rained on… or too bleached in the sun.
Timing is also critical. Kind of like straw, if the grass goes to seed for too long before cutting, the quality is diminished. Here are some of the more critical factors.
The Right Climate Helps
In many locations, it can be very difficult to make hay. Not only difficult, but impossible to make very good hay. The sun is hard on hay. Rain is even harder. The best hay is made where the humidity is low and rain infrequent. That way the hay dries faster than the sun can bleach it out. It also doesn’t get rained on.
The Weather Must be Just Right
Rain will ruin hay. For some reason, once the hay is dry, if it gets rained on and then dried a second time, it is not very good. It would work for bedding however. Hay can take a light rain when it is first cut however.
Here in Kentucky, we have a mini-monsoon season in April and May, followed by cycles of sun with afternoon showers. April showers bring May flowers, and it also brings on the hay. The hay is often ready to be cut before the showers end. As June draws nigh, the periods of sun between showers grow longer, but the grass becomes poorer.
Timing is Everything
The trick is to spring into action at the start of the right cycle. A wrong guess can mean ruined hay. Waiting too long for the best weather window will mean poorer quality hay. Since a little rain right after cutting is okay, sometimes it pays to cut when there is a chance of rain, but when there is a promise of clear weather later on.
It takes years of weather watching during hay season in a given area before one can become proficient in the art of timing. Alternatively, one can simply drive around and spy on the neighbors. Start cutting when they start cutting. Which brings up the next requirement for haymaking.
It Takes Equipment
Hay doesn’t make itself. Unless an animal cuts the grass in the process of eating it, it take a piece of equipment to do so. And not just for cutting either. Hay must be cut, tedded (optionally), raked, baled (optionally) and protected against the weather. All of these things require special equipment.
Mowing is the most labor intensive part of the process. You can’t use a rotary cutter like your lawnmower, because it chops the grass too fine. The grass must be cut at the base and left on the ground in its full length. Why? Because you need that length in order to rake and transport it. Short grass just won’t work for the next steps.In the old days, a scythe was used. It took a stout man a whole day (12 hours) to mow one acre. You can still mow that way today. The trick to using a scythe is to use the Austrian kind, not the American kind. You can buy lightweight aluminum ones today. With the Austrian kind you don’t have to bend over to cut. You stand upright and sweep in a circular motion. It is actually very pleasant work and poets have waxed eloquently about it.
For anything over 1/4 acre, the Sickle-Bar Mower is a better tool. Pa in Laura Ingall’s The Long Winter used a horse drawn sickle bar mower to cut his hay. You can still find these mowers as well as buy small two-wheel tractor versions (including old Gravely’s) or put a big one on a tractor. They are fairly cheap when purchased used, and don’t need a very big tractor.
For good haymaking, a simple Sickle Mower doesn’t do nearly as good of a job as the more modern mowers. Modern tractor-drawn mowers crimp the grass between rollers as it mows. This action squeezes most of the water out, making the hay dry faster with less bleaching. The downside is they are very expensive. Unless one cuts hay professionally or has over 100 acres to cut, they are too pricey to justify.
Tedding is an optional step before raking. When you ted, you basically scatter the mowed hay over the ground. The reason is the get rid of big clumps and turn the hay for more even drying. Without tedding, the hay on top gets bleached while the hay underneath is still moist. Tedding will even out the drying more.
Tedding by hand is way to much work to even consider. I do however, break up any large piles I leave in the process of mowing. Tractor drawn tedders are nice, but they are rather expensive. Most farmers don’t bother.
Raking is the next step in haymaking. When the hay is cut it lies like a blanket on the ground. Raking it is the process of gathering it into windrows. A windrow is a low mound of grass that forms a row along the ground. It helps finish the drying and makes it easier to gather for storage.
Raking by hand is almost as labor intensive as mowing by hand – about half an acre is tops. Fortunately, ‘side delivery’ rakes are fairly inexpensive. You can get horse drawn ones as well as tractor drawn versions. You don’t even need a tractor to pull them either.
For many years, I would pull ours behind this old jeep we owned. One thing to watch out for when using cars and trucks for this work – the grass can easily get wrapped around the drive shaft and then catch fire! That happened to us when we had pulled a wagon load of hay into the barn. Thankfully, a quick acting young man was able to save the day without damage to either car or barn.
Putting It Up
In the olden days before hay balers, hay was loaded by pitchfork into wagons and then either piled into humongous barns or else onto even more humongous stacks. I have always wanted to make a haystack, but the art of that is quite a feat – one that I have never mastered. My Dad told me about making haystacks around a pole 20 feet in the air! I am not certain about the 20′ length, but I remember it was really tall.Loose hay can be very high quality. Since it is not tightly baled, it has more time to dry fully. It can also be put up somewhat wet and still dry. Gene Logsdon swears by it. For many years, we put our hay up loose by hand. It takes a good wagon, a few hay rakes (although steel tine rakes work as well), several lightweight pitchforks (which aren’t made anymore) and a lot of hands – more on that in a bit.
Nowadays, most people bale their hay – either in rectangular bales (called square bales) or large round bales. When baled in the round, the process is called ‘rolling hay’. Square bales are heavy – over 50 pounds and must be picked up and stacked by hand. This type of hay is considered the best, but takes a lot of labor and a good barn to put it in.
Round bales are the most popular because they are like mini-haystacks, which is to say they can be left outside all year. Weighing over 1000 pounds, they are easily handled by tractor, making for less labor. With the low labor requirements and simpler storage options, you can see why these types of bales are so popular.
It Takes Work
Haymaking is hard work. It is also magnificent work. I would not say it is pleasant, but it is rewarding. Mowing is fun – whether by hand, horse or tractor.
Raking is extremely satisfying. I rank it up there along with watching a dog chew a bone or a cow eating grass. Seeing the grass roll out the side of the rake is kind of like watching the ocean water rolling into the beach.
Putting the hay up is where the rubber meets the road. Doing it loose is the hardest labor you will ever do, along with the longest day you have ever had. Square baling is not much different – you just put up more hay. The amount of work is the same, but a lot heavier.
Round baling is a bit different. It takes much less labor, but once it is done, the bales still must be moved – either into rows at the edge of the field or into hay sheds. This step must be done by a tractor – one or at most two bales at a time. That’s a lot of tedious moving of hay. Nobody likes doing it.
The Secret Concoction Every Haymaker Needs
When doing any kind of haymaking, the weather is hot and the work is exhausting. Unlike many other types of work, it can’t be left for another day when you get tired. The rain won’t hold off forever. In fact, the storm clouds are usually rolling in while the hay is being put up.
How does one keep going when completely exhausted? Ahh, there is fortunately for us haymakers a secret potion exists – eggnog. Eggnog you say? That beverage they sell at Christmastime? Drink it in June?
Yes. To say it is refreshing is like saying the sun is bright. My highest praise to Laura Ingalls for sharing this wonderful secret in her books. When her Pa was making hay, at just the right time, Ma would send out a pitcher of this delightful beverage to Pa and Laura as they put up their hay.I can personally attest to its effectiveness, and furthermore, I swear by it. You can be completely spent, exhausted, and too pooped to continue anymore. Then, drink a few glasses of eggnog and as if by magic – your nearly dead body revives and you find the strength to carry on until the job is done.
But they don’t sell eggnog in June? That is not a problem. You don’t want that fake stuff anyway. The real stuff is easily made. The ingredients are just milk, raw eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Of course you want eggs from hens that eat grass. They are not only more nutritious, but you avoid Salmonella which is ubiquitous in factor produced eggs, even organic ones. If you can get raw milk, that is also a plus.
ConclusionHopefully, you now have a good taste of what it takes to make good hay. Of course, you can’t appreciate the experience until you do it yourself.
As I have said before, making hay is a glorious experience. There is nothing else like it. The sun is warm and pleasant, the smell of hay is wonderful and the work can be immensely rewarding as well. If you put your hay up loose or in square bales – the teamwork is far more rewarding than any organized sport. If you do it with strangers, you will have made friends by the end of the day.
Have you ever made hay? Share your experience with us.
Making Hay by Provide Your Own is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.