Challenges of taking in hay in good old days

Published 1:31 pm Saturday, August 25, 2012

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

It’s time to harvest hay.

Alfalfa, lespedeza, clover and other grasses planted together as hay provide feed for our cattle during the winter. The hay is baled and stored in the loft of the long livestock barn, where it is unbound and dropped through holes in the floor into racks for cattle to feed on when pastures are dormant.

The grass mixture is calculated to provide adequate food value and roughage for a cow’s normal growing health without problems of bloating and other digestive difficulties.

To become hay, the mature grasses are mowed, raked, baled and transported, all requiring a prodigious amount of hard labor. Our double horse-drawn mower uses a long sickle bar with a reciprocating blade.

A worker rides in a seat and operates levers to raise and lower the cutting apparatus and engage the mechanisms that drove the blade. All that action is driven by gears powered by the mower’s wheels.

As horses pull, the sickle bar mows whatever needs mowing. After mowing, a long horse-drawn rake is used to gather the loose hay into piles. The hay is either stacked in the field, or stored loose in the livestock barn.

When the mower breaks, the most common problem is one of the sickle bar blades coming loose or breaking from hitting a rock. Spare blades and rivets are kept in our barn for quick repairs.

Lost time from harvest is never regained; it just means longer hours in the fields and nighttime spent working to bring the equipment back into shape for tomorrow’s work.

We have a tractor now and the process is quite a bit faster. The mower is still a sickle bar; that type allows the hay to fall flat and does not chew up the grasses.

Power for the mower is from a power take off at the rear of the tractor’s transmission. The cutting bar is still raised and lowered by mechanisms from the mowers wheels. Hydraulic power has not yet made it to most applications on the farm. A tractor-drawn, side delivery rake now moves the cut hay into windrows for easier handling.

Our baler is a strange-looking, noisy, dangerous beast that is belt-driven from our tractor. The grasshopper-looking monster is setup in a central area and hay is transported from the windrows or haystacks to the baler.

In operation, a worker feeds hay into an opening at the front. A large plunger moves up and down, packing the material vertically. Simultaneously, another plunger packs the material horizontally into a square-shaped exit chute.

As the hay moves down this chute, wooden spacers are dropped into position at suitable lengths. The spacers have grooves cut into either side allowing a length of steel wire to be fed into one side, looped along the length of the bale and fed back through at the other end. A worker then completes the loop by wrapping the two ends together. Two wires are used for each bale.

Square bales exit the machine and are stacked, awaiting transport to the barn.

This type baler is commonly called a suicide baler. Its working arms, chutes and plungers are open to any minor slip on the part of the operator.

It has no safety guards or devices — not even a decal. The monstrous machine is responsible for any number of injuries to workers, yet it is popular with farmers. It allows hay to be compressed, transported and stored better than any process to date.

As hay is used in many locations on the farm, wires accumulate on fence posts, and line fences and gates. It becomes ubiquitous in location and uses. The axiom “repaired with baling wire” is born and used by every farmer.

The evolution from horse-powered to tractor-powered farm operations has taken several years. Farm equipment availability and design change quickly after the needs of war have slowed or stopped. The sword is literally turned into plowshares throughout our country.

During the harsh, turbulent years of the Great Depression, my brother mowed Southampton County highway right-of-ways with a two horse, riding, sickle bar mower.

There is something about the smell of hay in the field, baled or loose, and the satisfaction of having food for your animals safely in the barn that transcends time and equipment.

I can feel the stubble of cut grasses on my bare feet; I can smell the sweetness of sun-dried hay. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at