Making Hay While The Sun Shines

Summer is haymaking season on the farm and I love to reflect on how making hay has changed over the years. We still use dried grass but our ancestors wouldn’t believe how we can make hay now.

The tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob in perfect, sunny haymaking conditions.
Terry’s Massey-Ferguson tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob.
Our farming ancestors would be so impressed with how easy this is. 

The Easy Way To Make Hay

At its simplest, hay is just dried grass stored for the winter. Cousin Matt, with just five sheep to feed, has haymaking down to a fine art.

At some point during the summer, when he’s cutting a paddock of hay down that way, Terry will run the mower along the grass verges near Matt’s house.

A few days later when the long grass has dried Matt simply picks it up and dumps it into large sacks (called fadges). Hey, presto! Winter feed is done and dusted.

But of course when you have 3000+ mouths to feed the process becomes a bit more complicated.

Back In The Day

Once upon a time, skilled farm-hands would have cut a paddock of long grass with sickles — those wicked-looking long curved, super-sharp blades. Others would follow behind and hand-spread it to dry.

A few days later, the hay was pitchforked into huge piles called rucks.

It was all slow going and hugely labour intensive. No wonder that farmers began to embrace the new technology of tractors and hay-makers when it began to surface.

Working the stationary hay baler at the Vintage Machinery day in Garston, February 2019.
John and Graham Petersen demonstrating hay making using an early stationary baler at the Garston Vintage Machinery Day, February 2019.
Farmers would have towed a “sweeper” behind a horse to gather up piles of hay and dump it beside the baler. The strings are threaded between each bale with a giant metal needle, then tightened and tied by hand. This process needed at least four people: one to fork the hay, one either side to tie the strings, and one to drive the horse.
And don’t forget the cook at home making the mountains of food needed to fuel all the workers.

Square Baling On The Move

By the time I came onto the farming scene, haymaking had become rather more sophisticated. One person could mow the grass with a tractor and mower, turn it over with a tedder or a hay rake, and tie it up with a baler which moved with the tractor. (Nowadays we call them square bales, although of course, they’re not actually square at all.)

The Tedder - a long, angled machine with 6 wheels and multiple tines which turn the hay over to dry.
The tedder runs behind a tractor. The tines on those six wheels are constantly scooping up the hay and turning it over to dry underneath.

The baler pumped out the bales and dropped them onto the ground ready to be stacked. Usually we towed a gatherer behind which slid the bales along the paddock until there were enough to make a stack.

My job was building the stacks. No need for a gym membership in those days  — freshly-made bales made great weights! And of course, since the finished stacks were always head-height, I needed an extra bit of oomph to heave the last bales on top.

A temporary stack of 13 hay bales in the paddock.
A temporary stack like this is the perfect size for a tractor to pick up with a clamp and cart back to the hay shed. The bales would be re-stacked inside the shed, to keep them safe and dry till winter. If rain was threatening, we would tie a cover over the top to protect the bales until they could be shifted. 

Introducing The Sledge aka “The Man-Killer”

Another way to build the stacks was on a sledge which towed along directly behind the baler. You stood on the sledge and picked up each heavy bale as it pumped out of the machine. Relentlessly, every 10 seconds, another bale to lift and stack. No wonder we groaned when the sledge came out.

Hamish and Peter Naylor just happened to be baling small bales the other day.  
You can imagine how tiring this process can be when you have to stack a whole paddock’s worth of bales using the sledge.

Rain Covers

“Grab the covers,” ordered Terry. “It’s going to rain.”

So I dropped everything and loaded the car up with the dusty covers piled in a corner of the workshop. (In later years I had to add kids and the latest baby as well.)

Nowadays, there’s not the same panic if it rains; the big modern round bales are reasonably waterproof. But the small bales would rot if they got wet so we had to protect them if we didn’t want to lose the lot.

There’s an art to covering a stack in the quickest time possible — and sometimes we did have to be quick! I lost count of the times we had to dash down to the hay paddock because of looming rain clouds.

Working together, two people could cover a stack and dash onto the next in a couple of minutes and it was actually pretty fun to race the rain.  

Folding — and unfolding — the covers correctly so that they were quick to use was one of the first things I learned on the farm. I can still almost do it in my sleep.

A tractor takes a clamp full of hay bales up to the hay shed where the men are waiting to stack them in their permanent home.
Photo courtesy of Peter and Pam Naylor.
You can see how the stack of 13 bales fits perfectly into the tractor clamp. This is easier than tossing each bale from the truck up into the hay shed by hand, as we sometimes had to do.

Keeping Up With The Times — Technology Moves On

But although haymaking had become easier and faster than those earlier times, we still needed a lot of hands on deck to make it happen. Nowadays, just as winter feeding out has become a one-man-band, Terry can also make the hay all by himself.

Cutting the Hay

Modern mowers are huge, noisy and fast. Ours is by no means the latest model, but it can still turn a huge paddock into long, flat rows of mown grass in just a few hours.

Turning the Hay

If the weather-gods are kind and the sun shines bright, the grass will be ready to turn in a day or two. Often, the rows are so thick that the grass dries on top, but stays wet underneath. Then we have to turn them over (called tedding.).

Later, he’ll go round again with a “haybob” which fluffs up the hay and puts it into defined rows which are easy for the baler to pick up.

Ready to Bale

In a few days, the hay will be ready to bale, and that’s when the big round baler swings into action. (Of course just as the “square bales” aren’t really square, “round bales” are actually cylinders. Who knows how they came to be called round?)

So, around the paddock we go for the 4th time. This time the baler chomps up the fluffy rows of grass and spits the hay bale out the back like a hen laying an egg.

A hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.
The hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.

Each bale is the equivalent of a whole stack of square bales and there’s no stacking or stooking to do. The tractor simply picks up the round bales and carts them off to the hay shed.

A Bountiful Summer

In Garston, we have to feed our stock in winter. There are months and months where the grass doesn’t grow, and our sheep depend on hay, balage and grain to survive.

And the weather in spring and summer is a crucial factor in the cycle of winter feed.

This year we’ve been blessed with plenty of rain — but not so much that we’re drowning in it. There’s plenty of grass in the paddocks, and lots to spare for haymaking.

Last summer — in the middle of our two-year drought — Terry managed to shut off two paddocks for hay and their yield was miserly. One paddock managed a measly 19 bales in total. Yesterday that same paddock yielded 19 in just two rounds.

What a difference! It may be hard to please a farmer when it comes to the weather, but this year I reckon we’ve come pretty close.

The lush clover, grass and chicory paddock close up.
This paddock of clover, grass and chicory produced lots of beautiful, nutritious hay this year.


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