Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Sharon June 25th, 2009

Behold her, single in the field,
    Yon solitary Highland Lass!
    Reaping and singing by herself;
    Stop here, or gently pass!
    Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
    And sings a melancholy strain;
    O listen! for the Vale profound
    Is overflowing with the sound. - Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper

The hay should have been cut two weeks ago. Ok, for the best quality, it should have been cut two weeks before that, but the garden was still being planted then, and we have to be realistic here.  But for most of the last two weeks, there has been rain.  And more rain.  And more rain. You see it has to be dry to make hay - hay that is rained on loses its nutritional value quickly, not to mention taking forever to dry (and wet hay is combustible, so you don’t want it in your barn), so the best days for haying are dry and hot.

Today was one of those days, and so I took my scythe, tied my hair off my face, packed up the water bottle and set to slicing through the tall grass in our field.  Now I am not the solitary reaper.  No one calls me “lass” at 36, with four kids,  unless they are Scottish and 80 years old. I was cutting grass, not grain, with a scythe, not a sickle (got one of of those too, though).  And I can’t scythe and sing melancholy songs at the same time.  Cutting hay is far too cheerful a job for melancholy, and when I get hot and sweaty, I’d rather not sing, but just watch the grass and the barn swallows play.  Plus, no vale here  - we’re up in the hills.  Otherwise, it was just like a Wordworth poem, right ;-)?

As I was out scything, a few of the cars that passed slowed down to take a look - there are not that many places where people put up hay by hand anymore.  It is normal to see the tractors in the field now, or the big hay trucks heading back to the barn, but not to see someone working by hand.  But we don’t do that much - much less than acre each year.  With only a few goats eating hay (the sheep don’t winter here, but back at my neighbor’s place), we don’t need that much, and so it isn’t very expensive to supplement what we do put up. 

We also don’t bale it - most people think that hay must be baled, but before the advent of equipment most of it was stacked or put up loose in barns.  So far, we’ve done loose hay, but this year, I’m going to try and build a haystack - properly done, it should shed rain and allow me to keep the hay outside.  Whether I’ll do it properly is another issue altogether - like many things we do for the first time, I anticipate difficulties.  But that’s ok, there’s a second cutting yet to come, and that’s the stuff that matters more.  If my stack fails with the first cutting, I won’t have lost anything - it can always become mulch.

My husband loves to hay - I honestly don’t, although I enjoy it for a while.  Because good hay is put up in  hot weather, I get grumpy - I joke that I’m basically a mushroom, who prefers her weather cool, shady and damp ;-).  These are not, however, haying conditions.  By lunchtime, I was happy to come in and find some shade.  The afternoon will be spent doing less strenuous things - if it was 2 weeks ago, we’d be pushing flat out.  But since the hay is late and already has seed heads, we know its nutritional value is lower than it would have been if cut earlier, so most of this will probably end up as bedding.  There’s really no huge rush, except to get the grass ready for its second cut, the one we will want the goats to eat.  I can afford to cool off and homeschool for a bit.  Still, there’s something satisfying about our harvest of grass - I know that my goats will be kept dry and warm on this, and the second cutting will help feed them.   The reality is this is just another form of food preservation.

The goats follow me in the field, mystified as I swing my body and the scythe round - what on earth am I doing?  Why am I messing with their grass?  The scythe makes a peculiar sound, something like “Wssshhht” when it slices through the grasses.  We’ll leave the grass to dry a bit, and then rake it into windrows to dry further.  The kids like to help with this chore - and the raking I do enjoy.   

I hay in a long, very ratty pink skirt that is used only for dirty garden chores, a t-shirt, and my hair bound up in a kerchief - dressed this way, I don’t look that different than the women of Wordsworth’s days. I’m not trying to achieve nostalgia, just making use of a practical costume - the skirt keeps the grasses off my legs, but is cooler than pants, the bandana keeps my hair off my sweaty neck and reflects back some of the sun.  But there seems something appropriate that I look as old-fashioned as my act is.

The reason we put hay up this way is very simple - it is the only way we can make hay out of our own grass.  Once upon a time, a man hayed our property, but he no longer cuts hay for a living, and while we would contract with others to cut our small hayfield, we found that they never had time to do it when it most needed doing - our fields were too small to bother with.  So we started doing at least some of it ourselves.  It isn’t much - we still buy some hay from neighbors, but it is something, and it requires only our scythes, our time and the fairly simple mastery of an arcane art.

Sharon

15 Responses to “Making Hay While the Sun Shines”

  1. Veganon 25 Jun 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Two wonderful posts today, Sharon. I’ll pass on the one on defaulting. Thank you.

    Happy scything!

  2. Susanon 25 Jun 2009 at 2:11 pm

    That sounds like fun to me!

    I just finished reading Gene Logsden’s book on raising grain, and I’m eying the empty field across the street from me. It’s close enough to stretch my hose to, or to pay the extra water bill for, and I know the owners, and it’s been empty since we moved in here 10 years ago. I could raise enough grain to feed my chickens and us for a year on that plot.

    We don’t have hay to sythe, but I’d like one anyway; the weeds get about waist high and go to seed in the front yard before I cut them down (we have many many bees in the front yard, and they tend to also check out the back yard and pollinate the veggies when they’re back there). That sounds a lot more meditative and easier than the hand held weed whacker, or the little pretense of a scythe I purchased for $12 from True Value last year.

  3. risa bon 25 Jun 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Love this! We do have a scythe and some uses for it, but taking up this art is … well … hard for a “lass” in her sixties (I was called that but it was a Scotsman in his 100s, I think). (!!) We have been eying the hill across the creek; it has moisture problems and have been trying to change that by establishing trees, but it’s a tough go — so maybe some oats or buckwheat? How to work effectively with grain is always the last thing to figure out for a lot of the five-acres-and-independence crowd, and I’m no exception. Where is the really good, really detailed advice on acre-and-a-scythe farming?

  4. Greenpaon 25 Jun 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Reminded me strongly of Ben Logan’s introduction to “The Land Remembers.”

    “Laurance, Lee, and Lyle, the only ones left who shared that hilltop world with me, will tell me next time we meet that I didn’t get all my facts straight. We’d argue some about that, but mostly I’d just remind them of what a neighbor used to say: ‘When you’re trying to tell somebody who ain’t been there, just how hot it is in a hayfield with the temperature at 100 degrees in the shade, it’s not lying if you make it 110.’ “

  5. Berkshireon 25 Jun 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I bought an aluminum handled scythe from Johnny’s but think I need a better setup. I use it for cutting weeds. I don’t think it would stand up to cutting a field. Does anyone have a favorite scythe to recommend?

    I have a 4 acre hayfield but usually just rotary mow it and let the cuttings compost in place. I don’t use hay for mulch as once it gets seeded it is almost impossible to remove from the garden. The roots get 1 to 2 feet long. Any suggestions on mulching hay and avoiding the seed?

    My local cow farmer wants the hay this year so I can trade hay for manure. That seems like a better plan for my garden. I also keep them in tomatoes and zucchini so I’m sure it is part favor. It is one way to bring the neighborhood together.

    We experimented with buck wheat by buying a 50 lb. sack of seed (untreated) and milling it as needed on our kitchen aide grain grinder attachment. Pure fresh ground buck wheat makes the best waffles and pan cakes I’ve ever had. I’ll be planting some as an experiment as soon as the mud clears.

    Yes the mud. We’ve had over 12 inches of rain in the last 3 weeks. Last year I lost all my tomatoes (blight) to the same weather but this year threw up simple raised planting beds. I just shoveled the walking row dirt onto the planting beds. The beds are only 6-8 inches higher but everything is thriving. The excess water now runs down the walking paths. The lettuce leaves look like squash leaves they are so big.

    It really worked without a huge expenditure on formal walled in raised beds. I spaced the rows so I could run my small tractor down the walking rows and dragged a “sub soiler” bar down the middle of the planting bed. A lazy mans double digging in my really clay soil. It also breaks up any tree routes that seem to show up from trees 200 feet away.

  6. Heather Gon 25 Jun 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Good haying post! We got in our first load, and then that was it. I’m praying this weather holds because we have a _lot_ to bring in. Last year this happened too, and it took everyone we could get to bring it in — 1100 bales in one day! *sigh* Looks like we’ll be doing that again…

    On scythes, some praise European Scythes while others prefer American. You’ll see more on European ones, I think because they have better marketing ;) But if you’re looking for one used at a fleamarket or some farm equipment sale, most likely what you’ll see are American ones. We have American ones here of course, because they’ve been on the farm for some time.

    Here’s a post on using the American Scythe:
    http://www.homestead.org/ChrisDevaney/Scything/scything7.htm

  7. Berkshireon 25 Jun 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Heather,

    Thank you for your help. The farms all dissapeared here 50 or more years ago when the small dairy operations could no longer survive. I would love to see some farm auctions but I fear I would have to find some over in NY state or up into VT.

    Sharon had some sun. I could see the edge of the clouds out in Sharon’s direction but it never cleared up here. Many hay fields waiting to be cut by our few hobby beef farmers. I’m afraid it will be a long time before the fields are dry enough for equipment. And climate change is only starting.

  8. Treeon 25 Jun 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Here you go:

    http://www.scythesupply.com/

  9. Joannaon 25 Jun 2009 at 9:36 pm

    We hayed with scythe one summer. It was really fun, but hot & grimy. Since I’m not so good at sharpening & peening the blade, I usually just do the tedding (with a garden rake & the neighbor’s hay fork). We put it up loose, but not very well. The goats liked it, but they’re long gone & my cows are too picky for sloppy hay.

    We built more space now, so I think we’ll end up haying again. In any case, the scythe is great for weed/brush cutting (we have a brush blade too) and we often cut green chop from areas the livestock can’t get too.

    Ours is a straight wooden snath from Sythe Supply. An awesome tool!

    This year we’re going to outfit our cart pony with a work harness and invest in a pony-sized forecart. Then next summer we can go to the unused, for-sale (and out of our price range) acreage down the road and use him to haul back green chop we cut.

    Here’s one of our blog posts about haying -
    http://seventrees.blogspot.com/2006/06/lessons-learned.html

  10. jillon 26 Jun 2009 at 5:58 am

    “The goats follow me in the field…”

    The mental image of a woman, goats, kids, a scythe, and field of grass is reverent and awe-inspiring. You lead an impressive life Sharon! Thank you for sharing it and providing inspiration to so many.

  11. ctdaffodilon 26 Jun 2009 at 6:19 am

    I envy you - I would surely injure myself or throw my back out doing that.

    Our grass has been growing like crazy - I’m calling a friend who is a landscaper to come help out and mow/catch the clippings - I want to put them into the compost bin - of course that wont happen again today - MORE RAIN is coming!!!
    we have had 8 days all month where it didnt rain….feeling pruney and sun deprived

  12. Pine Ridgeon 26 Jun 2009 at 7:11 am

    I second the reccomendation for Scythe Supply. I got mine last year (ditch & grass blades) and love it!!!! I use my shorter grass blade for weeds, including roses and blackberries and think this fall I will buy myself a longer (longest?) grass blade for hay making.

    I don’t use mine for hay now, mostly for cutting our walking paths, and weeds by the edge of the yard and garden. I have cut our small paddock by the barn and it is a work out when you first start, but taking breaks is easy.

    The scythe is also great when you are a small woman (all of me is 5′4″ and 110 lbs) or when you have carpal tunnel and using a weed eater would ruin your hands for any other job that day.

  13. Sarahon 26 Jun 2009 at 8:57 am

    If there was a way to mail weather, I would totally send you our gloom. We had about 4 hours of sun yesterday after two weeks of rain and there are a few glimpses of blue now, but the forecast is showing thunderstorms again through Tuesday.

    On the bright side, if I ever need a new skirt I can just stitch together the Giant Collards of Doom we’re getting from our farmshare. They *like* the shade.

  14. KFon 26 Jun 2009 at 9:29 am

    I got a scythe from ScytheSupply this spring to use to keep the grass down in our orchard between and around the trees. It’s a fabulous tool and wonderful piece of equipment!! My husband “borrowed” the one custom fit for me, that we’ll probably get him one too. He commented that after using it for a couple of hours, he felt just fine - no aches or pains like when he used a week whacker for a couple hours. It’s so much more efficient and pleasant to scythe in fresh air and quiet than weed whack in gasoline fumes and exhaust fumes and constant noise. Everyone that watches thinks it’s a ton of work, but it’s really not hard if you keep your scythe sharp. I’m 6 mo. pregnant and have done my share of scything - just with smaller “bites” because I can’t twist as far. No aches for me after either. ScytheSupply has a 15 minute video for sale that demos scything, and more importantly, demos honing and peening (sharpening) the blade. It’s NOT hard and takes only 5-10 minutes. And if our comparison of European vs. American blades for our sickles translates to scythes (and I would think it does), European is WAY better. The blades are made by hand instead of pressed industrially, the metal is easy to sharpen (no grinding wheel required), so it’s much easier to keep sharp = less work using it. And the European blades/snaths are supposed to be lighter, which means less work using them over the course of a day.

    I just don’t understand why people write off such tools as “too much work” without trying them and comparing to modern alternatives, when often the modern alternatives are not always superior. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that the modern ones are always the best. :(

  15. Ponyon 26 Jun 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Here’s a post on building haystacks: http://organictobe.org/index.php/2008/08/26/cheapskate-haystacks-for-contrary-garden-farmers/

    Good to put a plastic cap on your haystack in a rainy climate.

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