Making Hay – the (Sort Of) Old-Fashioned Way

One unique thing at our farm is the size of our equipment. Our largest "tractor" is a 14 horsepower Wheel Horse garden tractor, currently sporting dual wheels. We have about 35 acres of pasture, and in the spring, the grass grows like crazy, more than what the sheep and cattle can eat. Eventually, this grass gets more mature and tough than what the animals want to eat and must be mowed off to allow new, tender growth. Obviously, we would prefer to make this grass into hay and feed it in the wintertime when the pasture stops growing. But you certainly cannot run a hay baler with a garden tractor.

Last summer, I (Joel) bought an old-fashioned horse-drawn hay rake at a farm auction. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 80-100 years old. One wheel was frozen with rust, and it needed some other work to make it usable, but after a couple days’ work, the hay rake was ready to go. I welded up a hitch so that we can pull it behind the (appropriately named) Wheel Horse.

In the meantime, we also had purchased an old sicklebar mower, originally designed to be pulled behind a tractor. We modified it and mounted an engine on it to run the sicklebar so that we could pull it behind the Wheel Horse as well. After much trial, error and repairs, the mower was ready to cut hay.

After cutting the hay, the next step was raking it together into piles, then dragging the piles together and making haystacks. We were making hay just like they did before the advent of the hay baler.

After starting a stack, one team used the tractor and hay rake to drag hay to the stack, while the rest pitched the hay onto the stack. The younger ones got the job of stomping down the hay to compact it so that we could get more on the stack.

Forking hay by hand is a lot of work. However, it is actually simpler than if we made square hay bales. In that case, we would first bale the hay and the baler would shoot the bales into the haywagon. We would stack the bales in the wagon until it was full. Then we would have to unload the bales into the haymow of a barn – by hand. At feeding time, someone would have to throw down the hay bales, then take them to wherever we fed it. This adds up to handling the hay four times or more.

By contrast, we drag the hay to the stack by machine. All we have to do is pitch the hay onto the stack. We should only have to handle it one more time – when we feed it to the animals, right there in the pasture.

You have probably heard the old nursery rhyme:

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where’s the little boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under the haystack, fast asleep.

Every picture that I’ve ever seen of Little Boy Blue shows him snoozing beside the haystack. After all, isn’t that the closest you can get to being under the haystack?

We discovered otherwise. One old method of making loose hay was to pile the hay on a tripod that held it off the ground. This allowed the farmer to stack up the hay before it had fully dried, because the tripod allowed air to flow underneath the stack and cure the hay. Another method was to have a slanted rack, similar to a fence leaning over, on which the hay was stacked, again allowing air to circulate around the stack and finish curing it so that the hay didn’t spoil and rot.


We tried a similar method with the last cutting of hay that we made. Some previous farmer had left behind a large, long metal hay feeder that had been sitting in our front pasture since we moved to this farm. It was made of heavy steel and was still quite rugged, so we dragged it on out into the pasture where we had cut hay, turned the feeder upside down and stacked hay on it. Turned upside down, with hay piled on top, the feeder made a nice tunnel through the middle of the stack.

If you crawl inside this tunnel, you understand why Little Boy Blue would go to sleep under the haystack. On a hot summer day, the haystack offers a cool, highly insulated retreat from the sun, with maybe a bit of a breeze to stir the air and keep things pleasant. It would be a nice place to take a nap.

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