Summer Haying | Lessons from the Hayfield
About six years ago, my wife, Penny, and I, along with our sons, Finlay and Rye, began haying with a neighbor.
Martha runs a small dairy farm with her sister Lynn on the ridgetop across the valley from our holding in Cabot, Vermont. She is 69, tousle-haired, and inhabits a body that seems to have been purpose-built for labor. When I see her arms emerging from the rolled-up sleeves of the flannel shirts she wears even in July, they’re all protruding vein and muscle, and I’m reminded of those hollow-boned migrating birds that can fly hundreds of miles without food or sleep. Martha even eats like a bird, subsisting on a sporadic ingestion of calories, along with less-sporadic doses of caffeine and nicotine. When we hay, she often forgets about food, and I’ve learned to put a sandwich into her hands, to say, “Here, Martha, eat this,” even if all she’s asked for is coffee or a Coke. Paradoxically, she was once an Olympian, and it occurs to me that the same genetics responsible for her athletic prowess also enable her to thrive on this substandard diet.
Our haying arrangement with our neighbor evolved out of mutual needs, in the manner of many rural working arrangements made across generations that came long before mine. In short, what Martha needed was muscle, enough to meet the demands of pulling a few thousand 50-pound bales from the long metal chute of her baler, before tossing them toward the rear of the wagon to whomever is stacking them, neatly in a crosshatched pattern for utmost stability. The stability is important, as her hayfield features numerous undulations, like ocean swells caught at the height of their unfurling. I ride the wagon with my feet spread wide and planted, feeling it pitch and heave beneath me, like some landlocked hillbilly version of surfing. The fact that the brakes on Martha’s old John Deere are barely operational dials up the excitement a notch or two, but still I stick the toes of my boots over the edge to hang ten. Then the wagon bucks, and it feels suddenly as if I might be tossed under the wheels, and I retreat.
What we needed was simpler: hay for our menagerie of ruminant animals, which generally include a half-dozen cows, an equivalent count of sheep, and, if the boys get their way, a couple of goats to launch Cabot’s first goat-sausage enterprise. So a deal was struck, although, truthfully, there never was a deal, per se. Rather, things sort of took on a life of their own, following a path of crude logic: We’d help Martha and Lynn fill their barn, and once that was full and their livestock were guaranteed another winter of sustenance, we’d fill ours. We’d kick in something for fuel and maintenance, but the bulk of our debt would be paid in sweat and the slightly nauseated feeling one gets at the end of a long day of tossing square bales.
That feeling has something–though not everything–to do with the fact that not many farmers put up large quantities of square bales these days. Speaking strictly in terms of haying technology, square bales are nearly two generations past their prime. The onset of the square bale’s decline can even be traced to a specific year: 1965, which is when the delightfully named Virgil Haverdink was casting about for a master’s thesis project at Iowa State University. After a winter of tinkering in the school’s machine shop, Haverdink had fabricated a loutish-looking contraption that would become the world’s first commercially successful round baler.
Haverdink cleverly designed the implement so that the finished bales–each of which contained roughly the equivalent of 15 square bales–would shed water. And, because air couldn’t penetrate the compacted mass of hay, any moisture encapsulated within would introduce fermentation, rather than mold. The former is entirely palatable to ruminants; the latter can be deadly.
This meant that farmers could bale before the forage was entirely dry, which in turn meant that they needn’t wait for a three-day window of sun to make hay. Indeed, many farmers now put up what’s known as “hay in a day.”
The modern round bale, then, confers numerous advantages. It turns the phrase “make hay while the sun shines” into a platitude rather than a truism, and by doing so, it extends a calloused middle finger to the vagaries of weather. And because the bales are too big to be handled by hand (depending on moisture content, a round bale can weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds), they must be handled by machine. Because they must be handled by machine, no more physical effort is required than what’s necessary to operate the tractor’s controls. The upshot? With round bales, an entire winter’s worth of hay for an entire farm can be put into round bales by one person, who needn’t touch even a single stem of grass in the process.
All of which is to say, putting hay into rounds is quicker, easier, and exponentially more forgiving than putting it into squares. Heck, if you wrap them in plastic, as is common practice in the Northeast, they don’t even require shelter. It’s not hard to understand why the technology gained widespread adoption in very short order and why you can’t drive through Vermont’s farmland in the early years of the 21st century without passing row upon row of big, white, plastic-wrapped marshmallows of hay.