In farming, there are seldom any certainties, though a few things hold true—like baby animals in the springtime; frost in the fall; and a hot, dry, sunny stretch in early July that signals it’s time for making hay. This is not a task just for fun or fancy. Having enough grasses stored away for the winter is necessary for keeping our livestock fed during the snowy months.
Now, some folks have new, fancy equipment with GPS mapping in their air-conditioned tractor cab as they zip through the fields cutting and raking the heavy swards of grass. Others churn away with the cage-like round balers that swing open to release the giant marshmallow of packed hay. With these high-input systems, it takes one person to do what used to take a whole community.
Grandpa remembers the days when the threshing machine went from farm to farm, separating the grain from the chaff. His job as a teenager was to guide the horses as sheaves were brought in from the field to the steaming monster of a contraption. As the wagons filled with straw, he’d hup-hup the team to the barn, where the loose material was blown into the mow for safekeeping for winter animal bedding.
“The worst job of all was the guys up there in the mow using pitch forks to even-out the load, with their collars turned up, their hats pulled low, and a kerchief tied around their mouth and nose,” Grandpa remembers. “The blower pipe with the straw would shift back and forth, to distribute the material in the mow, and you’d see the guys hunch up their shoulders as the dusty stuff blew over them. In Central Illinois, those days were hot, and everyone was covered in sweat.”
A few hearty souls can remember the ancient art of stacking loose hay in mounds outside—neatly arranged to shed both rain and snow. A haystack was not only a building-less storage of hay, it could also be an important shelter for livestock or people during severe winter weather, as well as a play-space for children.
Our farm’s practices lie somewhere in the middle of these disparate traditions. With a mix of equipment that came with the purchase of the farm in 1968 and bits and pieces acquired at auctions, we’re a put-put, square bale, no kicker, 1940’s to 50’s-era hay baling operation. Grab your sunhat and a sturdy pair of gloves—it’s time to throw some bales up on the hay rack!
First, there is the chuga-chuga of our light green Owatonna haybine, as it whirs the sharp cutting teeth of the sickle bar back and forth, leaving a six-foot swath in the waving grasses. Cutting the hay is a practice in patience and strategy because the machine cannot be maneuvered too tightly with its spinning power take-off shaft attached to the back end of the Allis D-15. Usually, Grandpa takes several passes around the perimeter of the field, guided by Mom on the 4-wheeler watching for the dead furrow, fallen trees, or baby cranes. Then the plot is shaved down the middle and broken into two sections, allowing for large figure-eight maneuvers instead of creating a tight circle in the middle.
The haybine rattles all day and sometimes into the encroaching darkness to get the job done. This last week, in good old get-it-done German fashion, Mom refused to quit until the field was cut. “No sense hauling it back out there for that one little patch!” she said determinedly. So the last few swatches were cut by the headlights of the golf cart, as I warded off swarms of mosquitoes from the edge of the field.
“Really, can’t we call it quits!?” But being miserable doesn’t get the hay in, and as they say, you have to make hay while the sun shines. This was Wednesday, and rain was predicted on Saturday. The hay would need Thursday to dry, followed by a mad rush of raking and baling on Friday before to dew settled in for the evening.
Some years, our “bigger” tractors are tied up cutting or baling, and we have to pull out the little Allis B to pull the gangly red rake (which dwarfs the antique tractor). Known as a “side delivery,” the rake rolls the hay to the side, allowing several smaller rows of cutting to be glumped together, while turning the wet underside up to the sun for proper drying. Too much moisture is the bane of baling hay. Pack wet hay into a bale and the decomposition process will turn the grass dangerously hot—even to the point of spontaneously combusting and burning your barn to the ground!
Ok, so the hay is good and dry and ready to bale—it’s time to call in the troops! Mom studiously aims the John Deere square baler over the wind row of raked hay. Click-a, click-a, click-a, WHUMP. Metal teeth pick up the hay and feed it into the auger. Fang-like tines pull it into the chute, where the heavy plunger pounds it into place. As the bale steadily grows, a counter measures the length, then Carunk! Needles thrust upwards to the knotter, securing the compressed hay in two tight lengths of twine, and the bale is pushed up the exit chute towards the waiting hands on the hayrack. Click-a, Click-a, Click-a, the next bale is begun.
That is, if everything is working properly. Baling time is always fraught with mishaps, sheared pins, and breakdowns. You know you’re in for an adventure when the baler comes with a tool box bolted to the top! Optimists, aren’t they! One year, I had to make a mad dash into town to buy a whole box of shear pins just to make it through that day’s baling before the rains came. The hardware people simply chuckled knowingly. “Ah, one of those kinds of days, isn’t it.”
There is also an art to stacking. The sometimes slippery surface of the wagon deck rumbles and bounces beneath you as you lean precariously forward, reaching for the bale. The first layer is fairly straightforward—five bales wide in a brick-like pattern that helps lock each row in place. We do our best to keep the stack neat and square, so it stays on the wagon despite bumps and curves. One year of riding on top of a pile of bales as they tumbled off the side of the hay wagon was more than enough adventure for me!
As the stacks get higher, they can work as an overgrown set of stairs for a while, until the front person simply has to throw the 40-pound bales up to the person waiting on top. Towering five or six levels high, the wagon is unhitched and hauled to the barn then replaced by the next empty rack. Then the bales need to be individually loaded onto the “elevator”—a rattly conveying system that drags the bales up into the mow. Usually, Grandpa and I are loading the elevator, while Mom and Kara scramble high up in the baking loft, catching and stacking the bales in place as they tumble off the top of the elevator. Covered in chaff and debris, we’re all ready for a cold drink and a much-needed shower.
There’s no way around it—haying is a hot and dusty job. With enough rain, sun, and a bit of luck, we’ll be out making the highly nutritious second crop hay in September. Have you ever made hay? Maybe this week you’ll spy someone put-putting on their baler or come across a field dotted with round bales. It’s that time of year, for sure. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com