This is haying season. It's the time of year when those hay fields are full of grasses and clovers at the right stage of maturity to make the perfect cured hay. This forage will nourish and fill the bellies of cattle all winter long. Hay making has streamlined to large round hay bales picked up and loaded by large tractors onto big, heavy-duty trailers. Now all but a small percentage of hay is put into large bales. Some farmers still make square bales out of alfalfa, clovers, orchard grass and straw for small livestock farmers. I remember a time not too long ago of nothing but square bales.
When I was young summertime on our family operated dairy farm was dominated by hay season and gardening. Hay always took priority over everything else until it was completed. Having the hay necessary to get the cattle through the winter was very important. It is definitely easier now to procure hay from a variety of sources, or even have a crew come to your farm to cut, rake and bale your own pasture. This just wasn't done in those days, at least not economically. My dad was completely self-sufficient and I could never imagine him buying hay.
Making good hay is an art, just like most farm tasks. I knew it was a good crop of hay if the fescue was thick and high and bits of hop, red and ladino clover were interspersed throughout. It's ready to cut when the fescue is almost mature, but hasn't bloomed, and the clover hasn't bloomed too much, because the bloomed heads will just shatter and not stay with the hay. It's nice to get it cut at the perfect time; but with farming comes many unpredictable factors such as equipment breakdowns and weather. Before hay cutting would start, Dad would get the equipment out and start prepping it. All the sickles on the mower were sharpened and everything got greased before every use. I don't know all that he did, but I knew it was important in the process of getting it done right.
After the hay is cut, it is cured for a couple of days, depending on the weather. Cured hay smells so good, it has a sweet, green smell and is achieved by simply letting the cut hay dry and age. This is a very important process to be done before baling. If the hay is not cured and has too much moisture in it when baled, it can mold or even cause combustion (after being tightly stacked in the barn). The rows of cured hay are then raked into windrows that are forked into the baler to compact into a bale. My dad (and others from that “Grapes of Wrath” generation) was a special breed of man that had the patience and knowledge to figure out and make any machine do its intention. I remember him having to tweak the hay baler every year, and often throughout the season. Especially to make the bales tight and keep the knotting mechanism working correctly for the baling twine that ties around the bale to keep it together.
I remember long hot afternoons of sitting in the cab of the pick-up going down and around the rows of square bales when I was little. When I was a bit bigger I would roll the bales closer to the pick-up so that they would be easier for my brothers to pick up and put in the truck. My brothers worked hard to "buck" and stack the bales in the pick-up. I don't know how my mom and dad were able to do all that when my brothers and I were very young, but they did. I was fortunate to be the baby sister with two strong big brothers; so not as much was expected from me, but I did what I could to help until I was big enough to actually pick up and move a bale, or to be the truck driver.
The hay field can be a hot, dusty place on those sunny June days. Mom always had good refreshments, though. She would have ice water for us to drink after every load, and I remember cans of cold soda pop that never tasted so good. Ice cream sandwiches and twin pops really hit the spot! The days are long in the hay field, only interrupted by chores and milking-time.
I know it must have been a great feeling of completion for my parents when the big hay barn was finally full of hay. I can remember hot still evenings, glits of fireflies and buzzing critters and bringing in the last load of hay. In my mind I can still see my dad and oldest brother hanging onto the outside ladder of the hay barn waiting for those last bales to climb up the elevator so they could cram them into the peak of the barn.
As we grew up we started seeing round bales emerge. By the time my brothers were out of school my dad found a smaller round baler that he liked. It was good timing and he and mom were able to adapt the way they did hay and store the round bales in the barns. It also made winter feeding easier, as the bales could be spiked with the tractor and sat into a hay ring or rolled out.
Sometimes it is hard to see things change because of technology. But, adaptation is good when it saves time and labor, and is also economical without negative side effects. Balking at change, just for the sake of tradition is never productive. At the same time, plunging into great technological changes without considering all the effects would be foolish. It is hard to navigate all these ideas, to make sure that emotions are not stifling you, yet making sure that handy skills are carried over into new horizons.
Those hay season memories will last all my lifetime. When I see a pasture full of rare square bales, I wonder to myself if they will find anyone to haul it in that knows how to stack it in the barn as well as my dad and brothers could. Maybe that is just one of those skills that someday no one will even know existed.