Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cutting Hay: Then and Now

The cutter head of a horse drawn mower used for cutting hay in the 30's through the early 50's here on the ranch.

When we first began ranching in the middle 70's, it took between 8 to 10 people to put up hay.  There was one person and piece of equipment for each job: cut, rake, and bale the hay.  There would also be a crew of people to gather and stack hay.  Neighboring ranchers would share the work load and expense by joining together.  Instead of each rancher owning all of the equipment, each rancher had a different piece of equipment.  The neighbors would then pool their equipment and man power to get the job done.  Fuel and grease was provided by the farmer on whose property the crew was working.  The stacking crew was also paid by the rancher whose hay was being stacked.  The rancher's wife was responsible for providing a fresh cooked lunch.  Lunch was the biggest meal of the day and eating local food wasn't a movement but a way of life.  As a young bride, new to ranching, I found out that the noon meal was taken seriously.  I was used to cooking for large groups so that was no problem.  The problem arose when decided what to serve for dessert.  My mother-in-law had always served pie at lunch.  However, my pies had always looked like I had been using them as a soccerball, I decided to make cake for dessert. When I proudly served it to the crew, instead of being greeted by smiles and pleased comments, I received puzzled looks all around the table.  It seems in this neighborhood pie was the proper dessert for the noon  and cake was for evening.  Lucky for me, cobblers were considered an acceptable substitute for pies. When the crew came to eat they never had to face cake at noon again.  Things have changed a lot since then.  I no longer am in the house cooking a meal for the crew.  Instead, because of the change in technology, I am out in the field cutting, raking, and baling along side my husband.  As technology has developed, ranches are able to put up more hay with less people.  In our case, it is only Jim and I that put up all the hay on two places.

The earliest way that people cut hay was with the use of a scythe.  According to some experts, the cutting part was from the jawbone of an animal.  Using a scythe was a time consuming process and to accomplish the cutting of an entire field took a lot of people. In some places people still use scythes to mow their hay fields and, of course, there are competitions. It is a great exercise.  Scythes come in weights and sizes personally fitted to the person using them.  If the correct technique is used, windrows are automatically formed. In the above video, a man demonstrates how to use a scythe to cut hay.  Evidently, Jim's granddad used one at one time.  We still have it and have used to use it for cutting in small spaces like walkways.  Then . . . we discovered the gas driven- three wheeled string mower.
 Cutting hay with a scythe.

In the early 1900's the best technology was the use of horses to pull equipment.  Jim's grandad went with the horse drawn mower which we still have.  It was one this piece of equipment, I believe, that changed how people wintered their livestock here in the high country.  Before, people were able to put away only enough hay to feed the family milk cow and a team of horses while the rest were herded down to places where they could graze all winter long.  With the big increase in the amount of hay they could put away for the winter, more people began keeping their cattle at home and feeding through the winter. Here, the use of the mechanical mower for tractors was used well into the late sixties.  You can still buy mowers for your tractors.  They are perfect for the small acreage.

Cutting hay with a horse drawn mower.

Currently, we have two different machines which are used to cut (mow) the hay.  It works well for us.  If we have a major breakdown with one piece of equipment, we can switch to the other.  Basically, though, they are used on different types of ground.  The first is the haybine.  This piece of equipment not only cuts the grass but conditions it as well. Conditioning decreases the amount of time that it takes the grass to cure (dry enough that it can put into bales without molding).  The reel of the haybine not only pulls the grass towards the cutting edges of the mower but breaks the stems with the tines.  Between the motion of the reel and the forward movement of the haybine, the grass is then pulled into the rollers which further crush some moisture from the the grass then out the back.  The opening at the back is adjustable which allows for laying the grass out flat or laying it out in windrows ready to baled.  Because our grass hay is so thick, we always have it layed out flat so it will dry faster. 
This is the haybine we use.  It is pulled behind the tractor.

The teeth are the cutting edges. The points between the help support the teeth.  The teeth are very sharp.  So sharp, that our son lost the top half of his thumb during the changing of the bar which holds the teeth. 

A closer look at the tines on the reel and the rollers which help condition the hay before it rolls out the back.

We use the haybine primarily on the dryland ground.  As stated before, we do live in the Rocky Mountains and it seems that rocks grown from the ground in dryland hay fields.  When the cutting edge of this haybine encounters the occasional rock, the damage is done only to one or two teeth which are easily and inexpensively changed out with a minimum of down time.

Our dryland hay is a mixture of grasses and alfalfa. And believe it or not, grass and alfalfa must ripen before being harvested. The timing is critical.  The alfalfa is in full bloom when it is ready to be cut but it must be cut before it gets so dry that the leaves begin to fall off.  Most people think of lavender blossoms on alfalfa  but we plant a mix of all colors. Because each type of alfalfa has different strengths, this ensures that we will have some crop no matter the conditions.  When I go out to cut the alfalfa the entire field is a riot of different colors and the sweet fragrance of alfalfa fills the air. This is what people think farming and ranching is like all the time.
The colors of our alfalfa ranges from almost black, rust, shades of purple, blue, pink, shades of yellow, and white.

My favorite is this bright egg yolk yellow.

The other machine we use to cut hay is the disc mower.  This is attached to the tractor and floats behind it.  There is nothing which rides on the ground. This is really helpful in cutting tall, thick grass.  When using the haybine in those conditions, the cut hay gets caught under the parts which glide across the ground and accumulate into large piles.  This results in not all hay curing at the same rate and when you go to bale it, you get green globs of hay which are just as green as when just cut and have enough moisture content to cause the entire bale to mold or even catch on fire.  (The drying process produces heat which can cause spontaneous combustion).  Occasionally you might hear about an entire haystack burning down because the hay wasn't dry enough to be baled.  In some instances, people have stored wet hay in hay sheds and barns and have lost not only the hay but the shed or barn as well.  With the disk mower, it is difficult to make mounds while with the haybine, it takes experience to not make mounds in thick hay. We use the disc mower on the irrigated land.  For some reason it seems that the rocks don't grow there as well..  It is expensive and time consuming to change the discs which have encountered rocks.
The cover prevents the cut grass from being being flung everywhere and protects everyone.

Under the cover of the disc mower.  
Next time:  raking and baling hay.

1 comment:

  1. Howdy,
    Just found your blog and really enjoy it. Please keep the posts coming.