Harvesting Hay: The Early Years

Submitted Article
Harvesting Hay: The Early Years
Part One
by Pat Browning

As one drives across this land in the upper midwest states, it isn't unusual to see a steel-wheeled, horse drawn sickle bar hay mower in farm front yards. Four and one-half, five, and six feet were common sickle bar lengths with five feet the most common. At the end of the bar was a special board, set at an angle with a round stick attached for the sole purpose of creating a distinct separation between the newly cut swath, and the standing hay. This separation was essential for two reasons. On the next round with the mower, the sickle bar didn't get clogged with hay cut on the prior round, and to form separation to enable raking into windrows. Arranging hay into windrows set the stage for pickup of the hay by hay loading equipment. The sounds and smells of a team of horses drawing that mower along to cut fine alfalfa hay still hang in my mind as a pleasant ones -- peaceful too.

To form windrows, farmers used a special machine called a side delivery rake. This rake was a system of tumbling tines to gently kick and roll the hay into a neat, straight row. With a five-foot sickle bar cut, it was customary to rake two of the five-foot swaths into a single windrow. Hay was usually windrowed with some 30 - 35% of its original moisture content so as to protect the delicate, green leaves from being lost, and from being bleached by the sun. Drying continued in the windrow.

Once in a great while we would become victim to "hay devils" which were sort of like mini-tornadoes that would pick up raked hay, carry it for a spell, then drop it here and there. Those occasions just made life more complicated; you worked the other hay, and then use the side delivery rake, or the dump rake to re-gather the scattered hay.

Once dry enough to store in the barn, the windrowed hay was gathered onto a hayrack using a hay loader pulled behind the wagon, directly over the windrow; the wagon and loader drawn by a team of horses straddling the windrow of hay. As the fresh, loose hay was shuttled up onto the wagon by the loader, Dad would use a three-tined pitch fork to "build up" the load, first at one end of the wagon and then at the other, back and forth until no more could be loaded. At this point, the loader was unhooked from the wagon, and the load taken to the barn for unloading.

As one can picture, this method of harvesting hay is manual labor indeed, there was no shortage of other forms of grief -- even beyond the breakdowns of harness parts of machinery. I recall once where, overnight, a swarm of yellow jackets invaded a windrow of hay. Dad found their fury the next day as the hay loader brought up "hay with bees!" Dad was eaten up. He could hardly see for two days! But still, there was no time for rest. Down hay had to be worked!

The relationship between the barn's hayloft and those wagon loads of hay merits a bit of discussion here. Our barn was built on a hillside. As a matter of fact, every building on the place was on the side of a massive hill. Maybe that's the reason I walk with a limp to this day for no apparent reason! At any rate, the hayloft had five sections running the length of the barn; two on each end or side, and the center section. We would drive the team pulling the wagon load of hay up the gentle ramp, into the center section for unloading.

Once in the barn, the wagon was blocked, and one of the two horses was taken to be used to pull the hay rope. Hay was taken from the wagon to the hayloft by a system using a long, strong hay rope, a smaller trip rope to release hay from the hay fork, a trolley track w/trolley running the barn's length, and a special hay fork to grasp a huge amount of loose hay from the hayrack. Two types of hay forks were commonly used -- one a harpoon, the other a grapple fork. In the early years, Dad had only the harpoon style. It was made of two long, strong tines about three feet long, set about 20 inches apart; down through each was a sliding bar to operate a 'gripper' at the end of each tine. You would push the harpoon fork down into the loose hay all the way, then pull up the trip arms to set the grippers, one on each tine.

At this point, the horse selected to pull the hay rope, connected to the rope by a single whipple tree, was driven or led out away from the barn a set distance between 75 and 125 feet, lifting the fork load of hay up to the trolley track; at which time the trolley was released from the center position & free to travel down the track. When the fork load of hay was over the place in the loft that the hay was to go, the trip rope was pulled, releasing the grippers and thus the hay. It would be also at this point that the person driving the horse (usually Mom) was to go no further! Dad would have placed a special marker at the point beyond which Mom was not to go. Once at that point, Mom unhooked the rope, allowing Dad to pull the hay fork back and reset it into the hay load while Mom brought the horse back for another pull.

Many farmers didn't have barns with the "drive-in" feature. They unloaded wagon loads of hay at one end, outside of the barn. Using a two-rope system as above, fork loads of hay were taken up off the wagon to the trolley track, then along the track to the hayloft section desired where the trip rope (when pulled) dropped the hay. These barns had a fairly large door at one end, hinged at the bottom; a doorway which extended upward to the trolley track, just under the roof peak. You can recognize these barns easily because of the "extended peak" at the end of the roof, and the door below.

Every now and then, Dad had to go into the hayloft, with his pitchfork, to move hay from the barn's centerline to the outer areas. This effort was to maximize storage and to make the hay more retrievable in the winter months. Hay making time is a dreadfully warm and muggy time of year. Mom was always concerned that Dad was pushing it too hard in that heat. Mom once placed a thermometer up in the hayloft to show Dad how dangerous it was. The glass burst! That meant temperatures were well over 120 degrees inside that barn. And so Mom would always have plenty cool water, or Dad's favorite Cool Aide drink available. I call it Cool Aide, but in those days, folks purchased extracts from the Watkins Man with which to make flavored drinks of Root Beer, Grape and Orange. More times than I can count, I recall Dad's overalls being wet enough with sweat that you could wring it out of them.

Hay making prior to hay balers was indeed a labor intensive set of operations. And working that hard during hot, muggy weather fully drained one's energy level by day's end. But there was still the dairy herd to milk and otherwise tend too. Many is the time Dad would be in half sleep, his head against a cow, as he completed stripping operations, (hand-milking after the milking machine). When there weren't baby brothers or sisters of mine to be tended to, Mom was right there with Dad to help milk the cows. And then there was ALWAYS repairs to attend to such as a loose band on wooden wagon wheels, or harness parts to patch or re-rivet, or hayrack boards to replace -- either on one of the standards or the bed. In later years, a tire may have to be repaired. After milking time, there were still things to be done, more often than not, things that just couldn't be put off until a "rain day."

An interesting point here; our hayrack had wooden wheels with wood spokes and steel bands, common everywhere in times before WW2, and well known also in those western movies that were so popular a few decades back. What Dad would do for loose bands; remove the wheel, position the band where it belonged, then drop the wheel into the stock tank overnight! In the morning, the wood would have swelled and the band would be "tight as Dick's hat band," as the saying went. A little grease on the axle, slip the wheels back on, then tighten the hub nut and you were set for several more days of service.

The essence of making hay that still burns in my mind is characterized by the saying, "Make hay while the sun shines!" When you have "hay down" in the fields, there can be no rest until it is brought in where the weather can no longer hurt it. Getting your hay rained on is really a bad thing. The loss of food value is hard to judge, but severe. Ideally, if you had reliable weather forecasts and were also a little bit lucky, you could harvest your hay without rain. And if you were fortunate enough to not have hay down when it did rain, those were the days when making repairs were relaxing ones.

There were also many good times to go with the work. Any of you who has smelled the aroma coming up from a field of drying alfalfa hay knows a joyful odor. A similar aroma is sensed by those in all walks of life shortly after mowing their lawns. It is the sugar contained in the plant that brings out a smell pleasing to humans and non-carniverous animals alike.

I remember working with horses as a pleasant experience. Those hardworking 'plugs' were gentle animals, and you got the sense they were so grateful at feeding time. Horses just love oats and good hay. We always strived to have lighter hay (than alfalfa) for them; timothy and red clover were their favorites. And if you had hay with any mold in it, they would reject that in a heartbeat. It was as if they knew it wasn't good for them. And if one has any heart at all, you won't give a hard working horse lousy food!

I mentioned bees earlier. I recall one occasion; we had the hay loader and wagon out by the barnyard, ready to head out for another hayfield. Dad and I were getting a drink or something. At any rate, neither of us was with the team. Then, without any reason we ever learned of, the team took off on a full gallop with wagon and loader in tow, out into the cow pasture. The loader was flipped over and badly damaged, at which time it became unhitched from the wagon. The team continued on until they wedged the wagon between two oak trees! What a mess: damage to the wagon, broken harness pieces, and a terrified team of horses! The only thing we could imagine would have brought that on is that one or both of the horses were attacked by some bees or horse flies. They were buzzing around that really hot, muggy day.

In later years, making hay would change drastically with wider use of in- field hay balers and field choppers. I must tell you though, while packaging hay into bales did speed up hay making operations a great deal, by no means was the manual work element completely removed! Many a farm kid can vividly recall the muscle-building days of handling baled hay. There were city kids who regretted "challenging" the farm kids, learning the hard way that we did have muscle! My friend Tom, also a farm kid, remembers the time when a couple "city slickers" showed their jealousy over the issue of farm kids being excused from "after-school" PE class. Tom, a slender wiry kid with a mild mannered disposition tried telling them that "they really didn't want to mess with him." Well, that cool, self-confidence was more than they could stand. Tom ended up "putting a hurt" on both of them, after which time they showed more respect for farms kids. Those were the days!

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