Hayin’ Season!

I’m a farm girl. Maybe that’s why writing westerns feels so good to me – I understand that soul-deep link to the land, I understand being at the mercy of Mother Nature and I know for certain that growing up on a farm is responsible for my work ethic.  Work hard, treat people honestly, be a straight shooter.  Everything else just kind of looks after itself.

There’s a problem though.  You see, even though I grew up in a farming community, and those oh-so-interesting smells were for the most part pleasant ones (except hogs and when people spread chicken manure, P.U!), I didn’t grow up with livestock.  My family were apple growers.  And I could go on at length about apple blossom time and pruning and how much I loved harvest time…

But I won’t. Because today I’m going to talk about haying.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve had to research haying a little bit.  Equipment has changed over the years, and my memory fades a little. I found it quite interesting, actually.  I looked at pictures of different kinds of balers and rakes.  I read about drying times before baling and different types of bales and the advantages of each. 

Where I grew up, most of the farmers made the small, rectangular bales but when I moved out west to Alberta, mostly there are the huge round bales and sometimes a new shape – bigger square bales.  I always kind of wondered the reasoning for the round bales, actually.  At home in Atlantic Canada, you hayed, you made small bales, and you brought the bales back to the haymow.  You never left them in the field.  With the large round bales, you have more hay with a smaller surface area so it protects from the elements, meaning you can leave the bales in the field.  There are coverings too.  Some that leave the ends open, protecting the surface but allowing airflow so they don’t ferment, and complete wrappings that allow the bale to become silage – rather than using a silo.

So I learned some interesting stuff about the process that I either didn’t know or had forgotten.

All that comes in handy when writing.  For instance, in the last book I handed in, my hero is rushing to get the first cut done and baled before the storm that is forecast hits.  That research was pretty useful figuring out how things would play out on a time scale.  I love that when I’m writing, I can manipulate the weather to suit my needs, by the way.

But there’s another component to haying that has nothing to do with function.  There are feelings.  It sounds funny, I know, but the feelings needed no research at all. For that I just drew on my own memory.

When I was growing up, our neighbours hayed and I remember lots of evenings seeing the wagons loaded with bales make their way into the farm yard.  They were loaded on to a chain-operated conveyor belt and stored in the loft.  Quite often this was in the hazy, hot evenings of July when the sky was pink and purple and the air smelled like clover and fresh cut grass.  There is something so satisfying about a harvest gathered in and even as a young child I could feel that.  There’s also the sinking feeling of dread when you see the storm clouds roll in, and you hold your breath praying there will be no hail.

But by far my favourite memory is sleeping with my window open, and hearing the drone of the hay dryer (a huge fan) at the barn next door.  Rather than disturb, it always lulled me to sleep.  That hay dryer meant that the hay was inside, safe and secure for the next year.  It meant it was summer, and school holidays. In some ways, having that hay dryer on meant everything was right in the world.  And I kind of like how when you’re writing, it’s the personal feelings that give your research context.  How facts can work to reveal character.

Happy Hay Season, everyone.

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23 thoughts on “Hayin’ Season!”

  1. hi donna–thanks for a post that made me feel at home 🙂
    though i have never lived on a working farm…i have always been surrounded by them and i love haying season…
    there is nothing like the smell of a fresh load of hay stacked in our barn for the horses…i could just sit there and sniff it all day 🙂

    round here grass hay is usually in the big bales for cattle
    and alfalfa hay is usually squared and stored for horses

  2. I spent my summers on my grandparents farm and still say that the best smell in the world is the combo of manure and hay.

    I have no clue what my grandfather would say to the big bales. I know we played in the hay barn and made walls out of the square bales so probably would have thought those round uns ruined the fun.

    I also remember a folk tale about a boy taking a goat to market and ended up hiding inside a bale during a snowstorm with the goat for warmth and milk. Needless to say the goat did not get sold and slaughtered at the end. But it made me think a hay bale must be the most comfy hiding spot ever.

    Thanks for a post that stirred up good memories.

  3. Tabitha – of course that makes perfect sense! I’ve seen more round bales around here in recent years too.

    Julie – I have to admit, I played a lot in that barn and I know what you mean about making walls. There were always kittens there too.

  4. Great memories, Donna. I’ve always loved the smell of barn, especially at haying time. Sweet clover hay is so fragrant I’m tempted to eat it myself.

    I used to feed my horse ‘sweet feed’ in the winter – a high-calorie combo of chopped hay, grain and molasses. I really wanted to fill a bowl and pour milk on it. I guess the big consideration with the large hay bales is the equipment needed to move them – you can’t throw them around. A shame, since throwing hay around makes for lovely muscles.

  5. Hay…I mean Hey, Donna, that’s pretty interesting stuff. I remember the first time I saw rolled hay. I couldn’t imagine how that was done.

    Think of all the idioms associated with hay. Roll in the hay, hit the hay, make hay while the sun shines, and (my favorite) that ain’t hay. Fun stuff.

  6. Jennie – I’m guessing you like porridge. Me too. 🙂

    Hi Margaret! We actually saw some people moving round bales on the weekend.

    I also used make hay while the sun shines in my last wip, too!

  7. Donna, girl, I know EVERYTHING about hay.

    If you need any pointers feel free to ask me.

    My husband is trying to get his second cutting up right now and it’s rained two days in a row. Maddening.

    We use the big round bales. And we have these FEEDERS, a sort of round feed bunk, iron bars, and he uses a tractor with a forklift (we call it a loader) to stab into the bale, lift it with the tractor hydraulics, drive to the feeder and set the bale in. The bars surrounding it are open and cows stick their heads through to eat. Without the feeder the cows mess up the hay and end up sleeping on it. Lots of waste.

    We bale oats, too, which makes straw.

    It’s a huge effort all summer to get the hay up.

  8. Donna, very interesting blog. Around here in West Texas there are those round bales of hay everywhere in the pastures. I never knew why the farmers switched from the rectangluar to the round bales. Now, thanks to you, I know. And I can sure relate to the joy us writers get at manipulating the weather. Sure wish I could that in real life. I swear I’m sick and tired of rain. Can’t believe I’d ever say that, but I am. Here in the Lubbock area, we’ve had ten inches of the stuff and I awoke this morning to more. You should see my grass. If it doesn’t dry out a little where I can mow, I’ll need a machete to make a path to my front door. And talk about mosquitoes! They swarm me every time I slip out the door. Surely this rain will end at some point.

  9. Hi Donna, Thanks for the fascinating information about haying. My son in law bales hay in Nevada and they always do it at night. Cooler? Anyway the very large bales fascinate me. How do they load them on trucks? Unload? Who uses them? We see truck after truck going south through our valley with these huge bales. For giants? And then if the round ones are left in the field, is that the last cutting or is there only one cutting? How do they work around them? I’m full of questions. And as a Packer’s wife, I love mules.

  10. Hi Donna, My husband stacks his hay into very large stacks. They can weigh over a ton. In the fall a neighbor with a hay mover slides the fork like tines under the hay and hauls them home for us. These stacks are so well built that the hay then has to be pulled from the stack too be fed to the animals. All of the stacking is done on hat days so that the hay is dried by the time he puts it into the stacks. As the stacks are fed the kids would climb the fed side and slide down the other side. Farm kids know tomake their own fun. Of course they would be in trouble if dad found out but I have seen him also slid down the hay stack!

  11. hi Donna, not a farm girl here but I love learning everything I can about rural life. My town is actually fairly rural for coastal California but we grow lemons and strawberries and avocados. I can imagine the smell of the hay though; you did such an awesome description here. I love learning new things. Thanks for a neat blog.

  12. Oh, I forgot this. I am watching a new, very cool mini-series on Animal Planet called The Last American Cowboy…during the severe winter months, the Montana ranchers drive a truck slowly on the range and unwind the big round bale along the ground so the cattle can eat.

    It still appalls me, though, that the poor creataures have to spend winter out in the ice and blizzards like that. Brrrrrrrrr.

  13. Mary – you’re officially now my go-to girl. I knew about the feeders and it makes sense. Once I realized that they were loaded using those prongs it all made sense. 🙂 I’m guessing you could have a good go at Mary J’s questions!

  14. Linda- you are preaching to the choir about rain. This week is not very nice for the Summer of Fun except that I can perhaps curl up with a book. But the humidity is awful!

    Connie- you know how I said I used to play in the neighbour’s barn? I wasn’t exactly allowed. A friend and I used to sneak in there all the time to play with new kittens…

  15. Tanya – my dad had cows before I was born, but by the time I came along he’d sold the cows and was a full time apple grower. It was a great childhood. I spent a lot of time as a girl wandering the orchards. 🙂

    And here we have a program called Cowboy Country. Your comment about ranchers driving a truck through reminded me of an episode I watched recently. The rancher still uses a team of horses for that chore. His wife drives the team, and she says it’s better than starting and stopping a vehicle and slamming doors and alarming the cattle. The only sound is the harness as it jingles. I think it’s cool how ranchers still use horses for a lot of their work even though they use modern equipment too.

  16. Hi, Mary J. I’ll answer what I can.

    Mary J Question: My son in law bales hay in Nevada and they always do it at night. Cooler?

    Ranchers bale at night because they let the hay dry, then let the dew come on and the leaves don’t fall off nearly as badly. The hay has a completely different feel if it’s a bit damp from dew. But it has to dry out or it will mold so why does one kind of dampness mold it and another make it good? No idea, but it’s true. My husband bales during the day until it gets too dry. Then he comes in and through the evening, he’ll check for the dew to come on. If the wind keeps blowing sometimes it won’t dew up all night, or very late.

    Mary J Question: Anyway the very large bales fascinate me. How do they load them on trucks? Unload? Who uses them? We see truck after truck going south through our valley with these huge bales. For giants?

    The loading…picture a two pronged fork on the back of your tractor. Prongs about five inches in diameter and ten feet long. The rancher backs up and spears each bale, uses hydraulics to lift the bale off the ground, drives to the edge of the field and sets the bale there so the new hay can grow and you can get the next cutting without gigantic bales in your way. The process is repeated to bring them in from the field but there isn’t so much need for speed with that step because we won’t need the bales until winter.
    When we bring them in from the field we have a huge trailer that holds about ten of these bales. So, load ten, haul them in, unload them. Go back and get ten more. It’s a long tedious job to haul them in and set them were they’ll be handy to feed the cattle.

    As for the loads of hay, They are selling them. They are trucking them to the ranchers or farmers who buy them. We ran low on hay this winter because of the nasty weather, the cattle couldn’t eat the corn and bean stalks because they were buried in snow all winter. So we had to feed a lot more hay than usual. We bought hay from someone in Missouri, hundreds of miles away. He trucked it up to us.

    Mary J Question: And then if the round ones are left in the field, is that the last cutting or is there only one cutting? How do they work around them?

    I think I answered this mostly earlier. The round bales have to get off the field so the next cutting of alfalfa can grow. There are three cuttings. Occasionally we get a fourth but very rare. We also bale oats straw and sometimes my husband will bale cornstalks. After he’s harvested the corn with a combine, the stalks are scattered on the field and bale up pretty well. They make decent feed. Not great.

  17. I well remember haying season. We lived in the country, but not on a farm. Other than 50 chickens for 4-H one summer, we didn’t raise anything – 6 kids were enough to deal with. We had neighbors across the street with a large apple orchard. Actually we lived in the middle of MacIntosh country, with many large orchards. There were several dairy farms in the area too. Our Saturdays and summers were spent “helping.” Many mornings I cut crosslots (about 1 mile) to the dairy farm to help with the milking. Some mornings I rode the family bike. They pastured heifers in the field near us and hayed the other fields and planted oats. We helped with haying and many summers I rode the combine for the oats. I learned to drive a tractor, haul hay bales, load and unload. The couple who owned the farm never had any children and the oldest 4 of our 6 sort of adopted them. I don’t know how much help we were, but we loved every minute of it. I live in the country once again, surrounded by farmland. We watch them haying, have heifers across the fence (and sometimes in our yard), and have corn fields up to our back fence. Farming is a hard life and not for everyone. I can appreciate what they do and know how much it takes out of you. You do your best and pray the weather and market prices are good to you.
    I think back on those school years and our friends June and Steve with very fond memories. They are both gone now, but I will always be thankful for their putting up with our “help” and
    teaching us what they did.
    The apple orchard adventures are a whole different story. Loved it.

  18. Hi Donna! There’s something about certain smells and sounds that make memories come alive. Hay would be one of them. Here in KY, we’re seeing rolled bales on the farmland near our house. All the horses will happy about that!

  19. Mary Connealy and Donna, Wow! Thanks for your wonderful explanations. I did find out that the trucks that haul through our valley are going to dairies and race tracks in southern california. I live in the eastern Sierra. Since we are in the high desert we have quite a few more cuttings than three. So there is a lot to sell. Thanks again. Very enlightening.

  20. Hey, Donna!

    That drying fan sounds a lot like the sound of our attic fan when I was growing up–probably ours was louder, because it was right in the house, but it always lulled me to sleep in the summer when we used it at night. I loved the picture you posted of the hay in the field with the sunset. That was just gorgeous! Great post–I really did enjoy this.


  21. I also grew up on a farm. My Dad had a portable baler(we’re talking early to late 50’s) that he pulled from farm to farm and baled the hay for extra income. This was before balers that used string and tied the bales automatically. Dad’s baler used wire and someone had to ‘tie’ the wires.
    My Mother and I took turns tying the wires.

  22. Baling wire has been used by us for years. We tie up our meat to put in the pit and use it for repairs on all sorts of things. Now, with the twine, you can see different colors repairing items that cowboys are too much in a hurry to fix properly. My son is one of these guys. He has a variety of colors being used. And his step father is a saddle maker. Rude.

  23. I’ve been watching Last American Cowboy too and it looks like the next episode ia all about haying season. We get it at 8pm back East on Animal Planet, on Monday night. My friend who’s a rancher in Montana (but not in the show) says the show is just like the real thing. My Dad worked a ranch before I was born and the show always makes me think of how hard that must have been back in the 40s and 50s.

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