A few weeks ago we helped out bringing in the first cutting of hay for this year. It’s been 20 years since I helped “put up hay” and since I don’t have to do it for a living, it seemed like a fun idea at the time. I’m here to tell you, putting up hay is HARD WORK and I have a whole new respect for those who do it for a living. Here’s the square bale harvesting process in a nutshell:
- At harvest time, a tractor pulls a hay cutter over the field being harvested.
- Although not required, these days many farmers choose to use what’s called a hay tedder (some spell it “hay tetter”). A tractor implement, the hay tedder has circular rakes that spin as the tedder is pulled through the cut hay. This effectively fluffs and spreads it the cut hay to speed up and more thoroughly dry it. It’s important that hay be dry prior to bailing or else bacteria and mold will grow in the moist warm hay. I like to call the hay tedder a “hay fluffer”, much to the amusement of hay farmers.
- After drying, the hay is raked into rows for the baler (using a tractor with a hay rake).
- A tractor drives over the rows with a hay baler (some spell it “bailer”) implement. The hay is fed into the baler which compacts the hay into neat bales of a specific size (although somewhat changeable, we stuck with 50 lb. bales), cuts each bale into slices and then ties each bale with hay twine before spitting it out the back onto a hay wagon or onto the field, depending on what’s happening in step 5. There are lots of things that will stop a baler from working properly. This is the one single machine that seems to cause the most headache, as it’s in need of frequent maintenance, repair and kicking.
- Up until this step, most of the work is done by machine. Step 5 involves manual labor. If you have a hay wagon, the baler spits the bale towards the wagon where someone reaches down and throws the bales to whoever is stacking the hay on the wagon. If you don’t have a hay wagon, the baler drops the bales onto the ground. These are then picked up and thrown onto whatever kind of trailer will be used to haul the hay (often a car hauler) by people following the baler in the field. We had several people collecting the hay and throwing the bales onto the trailer. The stacker had an easy job until the bales started stacking up. We stacked five rows high and that fifth row is a pain!
- Once a trailer is full of hay, it’s sent off to wherever it’s going. Typically this means it’s unloaded into a barn that same day. Lots of manual labor here as someone needs to throw the hay up into the barn and someone needs to stack.
Trust me, by the end of the day, a shower is MANDATORY and you’ll be finding hay in places where you’d least expect it. The temperature that day was in the mid 80’s and humid so everyone was covered in sweat. Working with hay is itchy. I remembered not to wear shorts but forgot to wear a long sleeve shirt. It’s hard to wear long pants and long sleeves in the hot, humid summer but I’d rather sweat than be itchy all day.
Although the Kid and his friends came along to help, 50 pound bales were too much for anyone under 16 or so to move. Because of that, the 10-ish kids got to experience something far more fun. Farm kids learn to drive in the field during the hay harvest. The Kid LOVED it. I was a nervous wreck. Thanks to the ability to take pictures and video with my cell phone, Mikki was a nervous wreck, too, almost 2000 miles away on her trip. I put the drivers seat up as far as it went, raised the pedals, put the truck in four wheel drive low, dropped it into first gear and instructed our 10-year-old Kid to drive our air conditioned truck slowly behind the baler so the rest of us could do the heavy lifting. And he did a great job. This is one day when it paid to be small.
I want to close this post by saying how much respect I have for the farmers who do this kind of work every day. These people do it for a living and have strength and endurance that’s lost on those of us who are consumers only. I normally sit at a computer all day during the week and my out-of-shape body could barely walk the next day. I worked for five hours straight but these farmers were out there all day without much of a break and did it again every day that week. Amazing. Fortunately, I’ll forget how much work this was before the next harvest and will volunteer to help out again.