Making Hay While the Sun Shines

When I was growing up, we harvested our first crop of hay in early June, as the alfalfa plants were budding. These days, farmers seem to be cutting and baling their first crops earlier and earlier each year.

Much like Christmas, I could hardly wait for haying season to begin, since there were jobs for me to do, even when I was a kid. My earliest memories include walking between the windrows on an acre of ground we owned that was adjacent to the fourth tee at the local golf course. Mom and I would each carry a bucket to retrieve golf balls that had landed in the field. Our total crop of balls by the end of the season usually came to around 200—which we resold to golfers (including our family doctor). We had a couple of other fields that were across the road from the golf course’s driving range; those also yielded a golfing harvest, but the balls were of poorer quality.

Dad told me that his earliest memories of cutting hay were of hitching a small Ford tractor onto a horse-drawn mower with a five-foot sickle bar, because it was too hot to mow with the team of horses in 1948. By the time I was a boy, we cut the hay with a pull-behind mower-conditioner. The first one I remember was a New Holland Haybine. (When we purchased it, the implement dealer gave me a toy self-propelled model.) Then, we went on to a succession of John Deere machines with sickle bars, until we finally purchased one in the 1980s that used blades mounted on rotating discs, much like a lawnmower. That brought an end to the hazardous job of wrestling with the sickle bar to remove it from the machine. (The challenge with that assignment, required when it was necessary to change out a broken or missing sickle section, was especially dangerous when it came to sliding the bar down a narrow channel back into the machine and through the guards. One had to be careful to avoid getting a finger in the way, as one man pushed the sickle through, while another helped get the end through the guards.)

Dad started raking hay as a little boy right after World War II. He said he used a New Idea horse-drawn rake with four rake bars. (When I was just out of fifth grade, he began teaching me how to rake hay on our flatter fields; by the following summer, I’d graduated to raking on our terraced fields, eventually assuming all raking duties, including lubricating the hay rake and replacing any broken teeth.) In the 1940s, when it came time to pick up the dried hay, Dad and Grandpa gathered it with a hay loader that swept the loose hay from the windrow onto a flatbed wagon. They took that pile to the barn; then, when the barn was full, they hired a hay baler to make square bales in the barn’s driveway. Several custom operators were in the area; some used twine, while others used wire to tie the bales. In 1950, Grandpa worked out an arrangement with a neighbor in order to buy his own first square baler.

Dad said, “Grandpa quickly learned that a horse-drawn mower couldn’t cut enough hay in a day, so the neighbor let us use his mower behind the tractor, and we let him use our hayrake, since that neighbor didn’t have a good one.”

Square bales were loaded by hand behind the baler on the same sort of flatbed wagons used for loose hay. While Dad and Grandpa did all the baling in the 1950s and early 1960s, Mom started driving the baler when my parents were married in 1964. It was a job she’d learned on her Iowa farm, and she continued to drive the baler until she and Dad retired.

In 1969, Dad got his first baler that would throw the bales into a hay rack: a Massey-Ferguson that used belts spinning at high speed to shoot the bales into the rack. When the Massey proved to be too light in construction and the local dealer went out of business in 1973, we purchased a John Deere 336 with a kicker to throw the bales more efficiently. That made it possible to fill the hay rack from back to front easily, thanks to both a hydraulic cylinder that tipped the kicker left and right and another adjustment that could be set from the tractor seat to control how hard the bales were thrown into the wagon. (By the way, as the one who was the main hay-rack unloader, I could tell the difference between a load that Dad had baled and one that Mom had baled. Dad tended to make a pile of bales in the middle of the wagon with bales rolling front and back and side to side off the growing pile; that arrangement produced a load that was tightly packed and from which it was hard to pull individual bales. Mom filled the wagon from back to front and side to side; that arrangement was much easier to unload. Fortunately, Dad only baled the first load each day to make sure the baler was set up properly for that day’s conditions. Mom took over after that, coming to the field after cleaning up after lunch.)

Landing all the bales in the hayrack could be an adventure, what with our terraced fields and rolling hills. We also rented land nearby, and I recall the year that a hitch pin came loose and caused a heavy load of hay to push the baler and tractor down the hill with alarming speed. Mom kept control and managed to avoid any more damage to the equipment than a large dent in the safety bar on the back of the kicker.

There were other bales on our farm in addition to the small, square variety. Join me next month for more Bale Tales: my adventures with the large, round ones and the big, square ones.

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