September 05, 2007

putting up hay

The hayfield is where most young folk spend their summers around here. I have always been spared this rite of summer thanks to my allergies ('hay fever', quite literally). Sitting out in the meadows, performing choreographed patterns with a tractor all day, may at first glance seem like an excellent way to pass your summer in quiet meditative relaxation. There are a few other factors to consider, however. First of all, the tractor is loud and rough and probably burping smoke. It needs fairly constant maintenance throughout the day and will occasionally breakdown and grind the whole operation to a halt. As a result, neither clothes nor hands can be rid of their grease stains during this time of year. The tractor seat is mounted on a spring to temper some of the roughness, but there is no respite from the elements (dry heat, blistering sunshine, and bugs). Haying is usually a dawn-to-dusk operation, punctuated with a lunch of ham sandwiches and Bush's beans. It is my impression that there are days when everything goes smoothly and perhaps some good thinking could be accomplished, but those days don't seem to be in the majority.

Most ranches around here have a significant percentage of meadow grounds, areas where the watertable is high and the prairie grasses grow tall and thick in early summer. Haying is the process of cutting those grasses, letting them dry in the sun, and then gathering/bundling them together. This hay is then saved for feeding in the winter, when the grass will die back and often be covered with snow. Basically everybody nowadays bundles their hay into bales. Bales can be small square (a 4' long rectangle fastened with wire or twine) or big square (about 4 times the size of the smalls, but similarly rectangular), but most often they are round (cylindrical, fairly cubic in dimension, often held together with a wrap of clear plastic).

Not so long ago, however, there were no machines to 'bale' the hay. Instead it was 'stacked' into great heaping piles. My great-grandfather did it this way, using a large metal cage to hold the stack together and horses to pull the hay up and over, into the cage. Eventually, the horses were replaced with tractors, during my grandfather's lifetime. Remarkably, with the addition of a few hydraulic improvements, this is still the way haying is done on our ranch. We only know of one other ranch around here that still stacks their hay.

There are many advantages to baling, though I can only speak to the obvious ones: it goes up faster and it feeds out faster. But to me, row upon row of perfect, neat saran-wrapped bales look like some kind of si-fi nightmare compared to the old fashioned beauty of stacks - imperfect pregnant mountains of hay. Besides their superior romantic qualities, my impression is that stacks last longer than bales - we fed a few this past winter that were 3 or 4 years hold, whereas bales don't keep much longer than a year. Nevertheless, I am sure that Adam will be switching over to bales within a few years. Making the switch requires a fairly large investment in new machinery, but doing so will provide valuable time-saving conveniences.

Adam and his crew (Jerry, Layne, and Clay) spent the better part of July putting up hay. They put up over 100 stacks and today Adam is working on moving them from the meadows to the stackyards, which basically consists of doing this in reverse.

Most of these pictures were taken one late evening when George was out to help sweep. A larger set of haying pictures can be viewed OVER HERE.

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