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.
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
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.
In our village, however, we have a short growing
season–May to September–so we only cut once,
usually in about mid-July when the grass is “high as an
ass’s eye.” After the harvest, we let the pasture grow
again, and–in the autumn–put our two cows out
to graze on the second growth.
Don’t fret if you can’t mow precisely at the “right time,”
however. If you’re delayed, it won’t make a huge difference
in the feed’s nutritional value. But, whether your fields
are wild or cultivated, diversity of plants is important.
Good provender should contain several species of both
grasses and legumes (such as clover, alfalfa, and vetch) if
it’s to provide your animals with well-balanced meals.
Scythe Selection and Use
To “cut your own,” you’ll need a good scythe with a blade
made of strong, easy-to-sharpen forged steel. The handle
(this can be either metal or wood) should include an
adjustable bolt fastening that allows you to regulate the
Scythe experts use light, razor-thin blades, but these are
easily broken on hidden rocks when used by the uninitiated.
You’ll do better to buy a sturdier tool to withstand the
knocks that you, as a beginner, will give it. After a few
years of haymaking, you can safely use the thinner types.
you can be sure of your tool’s quality–whatever kind
of scythe you buy–if you make a simple resonance
test: Just thump the blade’s surface with your finger. If it rings clear, it’s fine. A dull thud, on the other,
hand, is a good enough reason to look elsewhere.
A person’s height is used to determine the length of his or
her mower’s handle. Stand the scythe (with the blade
attached) at your side. The upper grip should come just to
your armpit, and–with your arm hanging naturally at
your side–you should be able to grasp the lower grip with
your hand. Strength is the determining factor in choosing a
blade length. The men of our village usually use a 26- to
30-inch model, while women and children are more
comfortable–and efficient–with the lighter
Once you’ve chosen your scythe, practice with it: Grab the
lower grip with your right hand, palm down, and the upper
grip with your left hand, palm up. Then, stand with your
legs apart to balance the swing and concentrate on a whole
body pivot–knees bending to accommodate to the
sway–and shift your body from right to left and back.
(Wrist and arm movements are secondary to this “body
Keep the blade as nearly parallel to the ground as
possible, and swing it from right to left to make the cut
(or swath) of grass. The cutting edge should slice into a
patch of grass at an acute angle, similar to the way a
carving knife slices into a hunk of meat.
Cut four inches or less into the grass with each sweep and
swing the blade only as widely as is comfortable for you.
As you return the scythe to the right, the grass will slip
off in a neat row to your left. Should you find that you
lean too far over or too far back in an effort
to keep the blade ”flat,” simply adjust its angle.
Obviously, when you come to unyielding
obstacles–rocks or branches–either moderate
your swing, work around the hazards, or avoid that spot
altogether. And never force the blade to cut woody
vegetation. The swing of the scythe should provide the
power for your cut.
Keep It Sharp!
Blade sharpening is a ritual with the old-timers in our
village. After several rows of grass, these ”pros” sharpen
their scythes’ cutting edges with a stone, and–every
hour or so–stop to beat them on a special anvil. The
regularity of such “touch-ups” should give you some idea of
how important a sharp scythe is, so take a few
extra minutes to hone your blade correctly. If you don’t do
this, you’ll waste time and energy chopping furiously and
unsuccessfully at stubborn patches of grass.
The traditional scythe anvil has a slightly rounded head (not the flatiron
type) and is used with a ball peen hammer. To employ this
tool, simply drive its pointed end into the earth, lay the
scythe blade on the rounded head of the anvil, hold the
concave side of the ”knife” away from you with one hand
and hammer with the other. Then–working in small
areas from the wide end of the blade to the
point–beat gently (always striking away from you and at an angle) along the cutting edge. The idea is to
stretch the metal outward until it’s thin and sharp and the
nicks are worked out. (If you hammer straight down on the
blade, its edge will ripple.)
You’ll also need to carry a whetstone (an oblong one with
rounded ends) in a can of water. (Punch two holes in the
top of the can and strap it to your belt where you can get
to it easily.) Then, about every five yards–depending on
the thickness of the grass–sharpen your tool with the
whetstone and water. (Believe me, you’ll welcome the
breather! ) Just upend the scythe and hold the blade steady
with one hand while you pass the stone over–and then
under–the cutting edge with the other. Always
sharpen in the same direction: away front
you and from the wide end toward the point.
“All Cut and Dried”
Get into the field as early in the morning as you can.
Scything is hot work, and insects can sting you to a fury
when the air warms up. Besides, if you reap early, you have
the remainder of the day to let the grass dry.
You’ll be scything from right to left, so–on a flat
field–always begin your cut at any corner and
continue along the side to your left. On a slope, it’s best
to follow the path of least resistance: Begin your cut at
the highest corner, and work down.
After the grass is mowed, it should be spread out to dry as
soon as possible. Get your helper to follow you into the
field with a pitchfork (the three-pronged variety is best)
and breakfast. He or she can fluff up and spread the fodder
while you take a break.
The drying time required for your hay will depend on the
thickness of the grass and on the weather. If you’re
blessed (as we are) with lots of sun and and mountain air,
you can bring in your hay after two or three clear days
Just make sure it’s thoroughly dry on each side
before you store it, as wet forage spoils and can make your
animal(s) sick. If rain falls on your crop, you must spread
it out again. Remember, too, that if completely dry bay gets soaked, it will lose about half its food
value. However, if the forage grass is still green and
moist, a little rain won’t hurt it.
People who harvest a lot of hay have developed many
techniques to store it in the field. The commonest method,
of course, is to stack the fodder in inverted cones that
shed water quickly and keep the inner layers of hay dry.
To avoid this extra field work, we cut only a small area at
a time. When the big thunderclouds roll up, we quickly rake
the dry hay together and cover it with heavy plastic sheets
(about 5 by 15 yards), weight the corners and edges with
big stones, and run for the chalet before the down pour.
If the sky is clear the next day, we uncover the
stack to let it breathe, wait until the ground
is dry, and respread our crop.
If you want to cut a large amount at one time–or you
wish to store your cuttings in the field for lack of barn
space–try the haycock or tripod methods described in
The Guide to SeIf-Sufficiency by John Seymour
(Popular Mechanics Books, 1976).
Rake and Bale
The traditional European hay rake–an efficient tool
that is handcrafted from wood–has been refined over
centuries of use. You’d do well to make yourself a few. All
that’s necessary are some pieces of ash or spruce wood and
a few tools that you probably already own.
Every corner of France has its traditional method of
hand-baling, but our 70- to 90-pound bales–which can
be carried on a horse, wagon, wheelbarrow, or human
back–work well: To tie each bale, we use one 4-yard
and three 3-yard ropes, all made of strong jute or
nylon. Each length has a toggle attached to one end.
The hay is stacked up about shoulder high on top of the
ropes, then crushed down tight and tied up like a parcel with three ropes around the width and the fourth tied
Another method is to pile a smaller quantity on a big
square of burlap or canvas, with straps it each corner
which are used to tie the hay in a bundle. (This is
especially useful to tote feed from the barn to the pens.)
To make one of these canvas carriers, hem a square of
material (about 54 by 54 inches) on all four sides to
prevent fraying, and sew on another layer of material at
the corners for reinforcement. Then, stitch a strap or rope
(about 1 1/2 feet in length) to each corner with a
good four to five inches sewn to the fabric. (We use the
flat strips of material that hold venetian blinds for our
straps, as they seem to wear better than do ropes. )
Then, when you want to bundle the hay, simply stack it on
the square and tie the corners together diagonally with a bow knot. That way, when you get to the manger, you can get
the whole thing undone quickly; animals can get mighty
impatient when they see supper nearby!
(Of course if you can haul the harvest to your storage area
with a pickup truck, you can skip the baling job
Get your crop to the barn as soon as you can, untie the
bales, and fluff the hay with a pitchfork to break up the
compressed grass. ( Plenty of ventilation helps prevent
fermentation.) If you discover some fodder that’s still
slightly damp, sprinkle salt between several of its
layers. This will discourage spoilage and give your animals
part of their salt requirement.
Once the harvest is in, store your equipment in a dry
place until the next summer. At your leisure, replace any
broken teeth in the hay rake, repair ropes, and make more
toggles (which can come in handy for a variety of jobs ).
Then you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the winter …
knowing your animals are warm and well nourished on the
pure, homegrown grass you’ve provided. And knowing, too,
that you did the job without burning an ounce of gasoline,
or sending a single puff of smoke into the sky.