Dry days and loose hay

Not much has changed around here in terms of the weather, so the irrigation work continues full speed, the dairy herd, and now also our flock of sheep, are off pasture, and we are currently setting up an area for the beef herd to start eating baled hay too. We’ve had some near misses on the rain, and the forecast for today calls for more than half an inch to fall, but nothing has come down yet.IMG_3194

There are many challenges for farmers growing in New England, with hills and rocks, hard winters, and poor soil. There are many benefits to farming in New England as well, and perhaps the biggest is consistent and abundant rainfall. We don’t have much extreme weather, but we get regular rain throughout the year, and a hurricane once in a while as extra. This spring and summer, with no rain at all, has taken that wonderful gift from us, and we’re scrambling to adapt to these challenging conditions. We have never suspended grazing in the season over the past ten years that I have been here managing the livestock, and we have never irrigated at this pace and for this long either.

We try to make some loose hay every summer, and this work is always a highlight of the season for me. In contrast to today’s haying technology, with large tractors powering PTO driven mower-conditioners, rakes and balers, our loose hay production is a human and horse powered endeavor. Brad and his team mow the tall grass with ground-drive John Deere Big #4 mower from the 1930s.

With quite a bit of restoration work and upkeep, Brad has that piece of equipment cutting better than ever. The mower, with a long sickle-bar of teeth running quickly back and forth, cuts the tall grass off cleanly, and lays it down in a smooth row a few feet wide. (A mower-conditioner, used by most hay producers today, follows the cutting with a series of spinning textured cylinders that crush the hay, ‘conditioning’ it.) The grass lays in the pasture for day or two to dry (depending on the weather), turning from grass into hay, and might be raked or tedded as needed. When its time to collect the hay, Brad and his team pull out the McCormick-Deering hay loader, also from the 1930s (or before). This is another piece of ground-drive equipment, although it is a bit harder to explain than the mower. The frame of the loader is dominated by a large diagonal track going up from the back toward the front, with wooden slats on ropes across for the hay to ride on and a spinning cylinder with metal fingers on the ground to sweep up the hay. The hay rides up the track as it rolls, and is dropped onto the wagon pulled directly in front of the hay loader. A farmer rides standing on the wagon with a hayfork, and distributes the hay, pouring off the top of the loader, all over the wagon for an even load.

 

This work is slow, the sounds are the creak of the old equipment, the calls of the farmers, and the breath of the horses. This work is fun, and the final product is a giant pile of loose hay in the hayloft (loaded by hand). Loose hay is nice to rest in after a long day, nice to jump in from a height, and our livestock prefers it to all other types of feed. Every time that I find myself working to bring in the loose hay, I am struck by the idea that before diesel and combustion, this is how hay was produced all over the world. There was, and may still be, truly deep knowledge of how to do this work well, and it feels like we have forgotten almost all of it. I watch our farmers doing admirably to keep this work viable, and I know that someone knew, or still knows, this work intimately.

Now that we have groups of animals staying in one place for a bit, we are going to try to build some home-made biting fly traps in an effort to keep ahead of any trouble on that front. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.

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