Thursday, July 02, 2009

Haying is Halted

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.

Day One:
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.
Day Two:
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.


asakiyume said...

I'm not sure if this blog format lets you answer a question but if you can, I have one:

Why don't the big bales of hay, the circular ones, moulder in the middle, when you leave them out? And how come the same factors that make the hay combustible in the square bales aren't a problem in the round ones? (Is it just because they're out in the open air?)

asakiyume said...

Actually, rereading, I think I understand: the plastic wrap must stop bacterial activity?

Lynn said...

I've been thinking about the hay farmers as I drive around eastern Franklin County and NE Worcester County. I don't think I've seen a single cut hay field yet this year, but I'm already seen several good ones that are beaten flat with this rain. At least the grassland birds can get off their first broods, but in this rain, I suspect even that hasn't happened - too many cold, wet, underfed nestlings, I'm afraid.

Joyce said...

My brothers all helped bale hay and stack it. Later they all worked at the local feed mill. Their good honest labor paid for their college educations. I have an 18 year old son and I would love for him to be able to find work right now. We live in the city and even the burger flipping jobs are being taken up by adults with families right now. I have him doing volunteer yard work for elderly people in our neighborhood which is a good thing but won't help pay for his books this year when he starts college. At least he can learn how to work though.

punkin said...

This is really interesting. Bucking hay and moving irrigation pipe provided jobs for teenagers in this area when I was a kid. It was hard work, and it was common to see young men with muscular upper bodies bronzed by the sun working out in the fields. I have been curious about the big 'marshmellows'. I find it interesting that the hay doesn't need to be completely dry. Thanks for sharing.

marit said...

I'm sorry you're having bad weather and broken machinery, that's no fun at all! We've been very lucky so far with the hay- we make dry haybales, only around 15 kilos (30 lbs), and our kids are helping out and doing a great job. We also make a few roundbales- haylage or sileage-we share most of our machinery with a neighbour, and he and hubby work together. We don't have many sheep though...but it's still a lot of work. Some of the area is so steep we have to cut it with a handheld 17-yearold son did most of it, I did the rest..but we've had great weather while working, so the hay is really dry. The last will be done tomorrow, and then we will need rain!
Hope weather improves so you can get on.

Emily said...

I'll think good weather and haying thoughts in your and The Farmer's direction. Not fun to have it so delayed and frazzling. I marvel at regional differences in hay baling: here in the Pacific Northwest our horse hay is rarely smaller than 85# bales. It is so hard to find good hay buckers around here too. Mrs. Dyer's ice cream sounds delicious! So interesting to read about your farm's production!

Willow said...

My brother works with a couple of others to do the haying together. I'll ask him how the hay is baled. My memory is it's in the square ones.

Turtle said...

don't worry, we're getting major sun right now, give it a week and you should have gorgeous weather as it gets to you!

Anonymous said...

I LOVED this post!! Now I know what it's all about. I always wondered what all the lined-up white bales were about. And the chemistry/aerobic/anaerobic lesson was great!

My sons have helped with the baling and that is some work day.

I just!! told my son not to worry when he asked if we were too late to plant the sunflowers. Now I remember why...the disintegrating heads and seeds with rainy weather.

The syncrony of lives dependent on the weather....

Christine in Michigan

Anonymous said...

Eeeee Gads! Fire from square bales. I sure hope not. I guess that's a good reason not to store too many! My DH will be glad to hear there is a reason.

I'm sorry your hay season has been so awful. It's been the same here in Maryland. So much rain this spring. They just can't find enough dry days to cut and bale. That makes for a winter shortage. And struggling farmers in already hard times.

knittingoutloud said...

Yorkshire Gold tea is the best! We have a sunny day here in Maine, hope you finally have some sun, too.

Jo in Boston said...

We finally made it down to Leyden and bought some of your lamb yesterday--met your husband who was on his way back to haying and Julia was very charming and helpful selling us lamb. We were sorry we couldn't take fluffy Zelda back with us though.

Flower said...

We have both round bales and square bales in our area. The square bales are the most popular because much of the hay is sold by the ton and an 800lb round bale would not work. We have friends who come help and we make sure they are well fed, just like you say!! We won't take wet's too risky with a wood barn!! If it begins to rain, neighbors come out of their houses and rush to help!! There are lots of great memories made!!

Penny said...

That you so much! I had wondered about the trend to round bales and had my (proven correct) suspicious as to potential reasons why. Also thank you for explaining about the pickling. This is stuff I should know based on where I grew up and am embarrassed that I don't. Thank you for filling a void in my education. And for doing what you and The Farmer do. I know *I* appreciate it and try to show it with my $'s.

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