The Art of Cutting Hay By Hand

You can save a good deal of money and find a lot of satisfaction from cutting hay by hand.

| May/June 1979

In my village in the French Alps—as well as in many other parts of the world—hay is still harvested by hand. There are two good reasons why this ancient skill has survived. For one thing, our meadows—on steep, terraced slopes—are accessible only by footpaths, so the use of machines is just about out of the question. In addition, the folks who live in this Alpine town are mostly small landholders who don't require enormous quantities of feed for their livestock.

Of course, it's very possible that your homestead doesn't spread over hundreds of acres either, and—even if your land is flat enough to accommodate a motorized mower and baler—you might not have sufficient grass to justify the purchase or rental of haying machines. In such a case, it could be worth your while to take up a scythe and learn one of man's oldest agricultural arts: cutting hay by hand.

Using a scythe can be terrible drudgery ... or—with only a swish through perfumed grass to break the silence of an early, sunny morning—it can be one of the sweetest pleasures of farm life. But if you hope to find poetry in the fields instead of back pain, you must collect the right tools, keep them in top condition, and use them correctly.

Making Hay

You can expect a cow to eat about 35 pounds of hay a day during cold weather. Horses will require almost 44 pounds apiece, while sheep and goats can get by on 4 1/2 pounds of fodder daily. So, if you multiply your animals' requirements by the number of days that you might have to keep them enclosed, you'll be able to estimate your total hay needs.

Different types of land, of course, give different grass yields. It takes my household (two people) six weeks to bring in 6.4 tons from our five acres (sometimes with a little help from friends). We work full eight-hour days—including weekends—and only take a break when it rains. (Ask neighboring farmers what you can expect from your fields, and—if you can count on the labor of two regular workers—allow a month or more to harvest enough hay for one cow.)

Most folks reap their grass when it's reached peak growth (just before flowering) in order to get maximum yields. However, since young plants are higher in food value, some French farmers cut before the peak, then harvest a second cutting later. By mowing twice, these people make nearly normal yields and get superfine fodder.

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