Zelda the Kitten once again asleep on The Farmer's morning routine of reading a farming magazine while drinking his Yorkshire Gold tea.
The Farmer is behind on his haying schedule. Usually by the middle of June he is done with all his “first cuttings” of every field. (Typically there are three cuttings of hay each season). This week - it’s the beginning of July and he has only just begun. It started off with his hay baler breaking down after he baled the first field. This important piece of farming equipment is starting to show it’s age. He bought it new over ten years ago from a tractor dealer way up in Vermont, close to Burlington. It has been pretty reliable until now. It took a long time to get the correct parts and then a while to get our neighbor Jason to fix it. All the while, The Farmer was chomping at the bit – trying to be patient with all the waiting and watching the perfect weather go by without being out there harvesting.
After about a month of delays, the baler was up and running. Then the rains came. When you make hay, you need a good stretch of weather to make a successful harvest – two days is good but three is much better. Between all the rain, he’s been fitting a field in here and there. The schedule goes a bit like this.
1. Cut hay with a mower. It helps if the blades are really sharp, otherwise the mowing can be slow. That happened a month ago. Now all the blades have been replaced.
2. Later in the day, run the tedder through the hay to fluff and help it dry. Basically, a tedder is a giant tossing machine and the hay ends up in a fluffy, loose pile so that the air can get at it.
3. Rake the hay into rows with the rake.
4. Bale the still damp hay. Our baler makes giant round bales that weigh about 800 lbs. You’ve probably seen bales like this out in fields.
5. Wrap the bales in white agricultural plastic using a bale wrapper.
Although the giant white plastic bales aren’t the most attractive thing to see lining the beautiful fields of New England, they are current choice of most farmers. It is possible to “put up” the hay not completely dry or even wet which is called haylage. The wrapping machine encloses the haylage in several layers creating a vacuum. Inside the bales, the hay pickles. It keeps for over a year inside the wrapping, as long as no holes are made by crows, or bears. We know this because we have lost several bales to animals. We try to keep checking our bales just in case they become damaged. That way, we can feed them out before they become too spoiled.
Years ago, most farmers made square bales of hay that were tied with sisal twine. Square bales aren’t really square – they are rectangular – but they have always been called “square bales.” Funny. They weighed about 30 to 40 lbs and could be lifted and stacked into neat piles to be stored for the winter in big old hay barns. Although many people still like square bales, they are really difficult for farmers to make. A farmer has to find a bunch of people to pick up the bales as they come out of the baler, stack them on hay wagon, and then load them into a barn. It is also vitally important that the hay is put up very dry. Square bales that are wet are very combustible. There’s been many a big old barn that has been burned down from the heat building up in the bales and then catching the structure on fire.
The big problem around here with putting up square bales is the labor. When My Farmer was a kid, he helped every farmer around town picking up and stacking up bales. Part of the pay was lunch and snacks and cold drinks. He still talks about Mrs. Dyer’s homemade vanilla ice cream with maple syrup and Mrs. Miller’s endless glasses of cold milk and beef heart sandwiches. That’s the power of food and drink on a teenage boy on a scorching hot summer day in August – a memory that lasts forever.
Now, it’s pretty difficult to find teenagers who want to spend a day out in the hot sun, sweating and lifting dirty, heavy bales of hay that are tied with sisal string that can cut your fingers. They would rather be slinging burgers at Wendy’s or playing video games on the computer. That’s why we “put up” round bales. It only takes one person with working equipment to cut, bale and wrap several acres of hay. The equipment and repair is expensive to keep up but it makes feeding our sheep home-grown hay possible all year long. We don’t need a barn to store the hay – the bales can be set aside at the edge of the field until needed. That’s why you see giant “marshmallows” lining the sides of roads and fields throughout the hills and valleys of New England and other farming communities.
We’re in for another week of rain. The hay will be growing like crazy while the rain pours. It’s a good thing we haven’t started planting our sunflower field yet. Otherwise, the seeds would be rotting and we’d have to start that project all over again. We’re wondering if it will happen at all this year.