It’s hot. Probably the only people who are really excited about this hot dry weather right now are the farmers and ranchers who are putting up hay. This rite of summer has to be done whether the weather is ideal or not. And Mother Nature can be fickle. You never know when a downpour is coming so it’s best to get as much hay put up as possible every day.
When I was young, life in the summer revolved around haying. Between the milk cows, irrigation and haying, there wasn’t much time for anything else. The process was much longer then. First came the mowing, then the raking and then the stacking. Once that was finished, the irrigation started and again and if it was an alfalfa mixture, the process started all over again about six weeks later.
The mowing was done with a tractor (ours was a gray and red Ford tractor) with a mower attached. The mower bar was checked first and all sickle sections were checked, replaced or sharpened. This process was repeated each time a new field was cut because inevitably, rocks were hit. The hay was then raked into windrows.
As a small child, I remember sitting on the dump rake. At one time this was pulled by a team of horses but by the time I came alone, it was pulled with a tractor. The purpose of this rake was to roll the mown hay into windrows and then bunch those rows into piles of hay about six feet across. Dad or Mom would be driving the tractor and one of us kids would be on the dump rake. My brothers were older and knew when to step on the peddle to ‘dump’ the hay but if I was on the rake, the driver would slow way down and tell me each time to step on it. Consequently I didn’t do this very often.
These piles were then ‘pushed’ to the stack with a buck rake and pushed onto loose hay stacker. If you have been through the Big Hole Valley or up around Avon, you may have seen the Beaver Slides. These stackers are more familiar than the one that Dad used. That one was a smaller version but the mechanics were similar. Once the hay was pushed onto the stacker, a pulley system was used to pull the hay up to the top of the stacker and dump onto the stack. Generally Dad used a team to pull the hay to the top of the stacker. Once the hay was dumped over onto the stack, someone had to use a pitchfork to even out the hay and make a nice stack that was weather proof. Building a good stack was always a matter of pride for my dad. He didn’t want any hay to be wasted and by the time he was done, the haystack’s outer layer would shed water. Even when the hay was stacked in the barn, Dad made a point of making sure the hay was evenly spread throughout the haymow.
This way of putting up hay was very labor intensive and by the end of the summer, everyone was worn out. By the time we sold the ranch, Dad had switched over to baled hay. There was still mowing, and raking, and stacking, but it didn’t take as long. As with the loose hay, building a stack out of bales was an art form. It took Dad a few times to figure it out with more than once having to either rebuild the stack or shore up a corner with posts and poles.
Dad ran a custom haying operation after we moved to town and my summers still revolved around haying. He would begin the Monday after Father’s Day and continue through the first of September. At first we mowed and raked and baled but it wasn’t long before Dad bought a swather that combined the mowing and raking. However if the hay was heavy or if it got rained on after being cut, it still needed to be raked. That’s where I came in. My summer job was raking hay from the time I was a sixth grader until I was in college. This was before IPod and such, so the time going around and around the fields could get a little monotonous. I spent a lot of time singing, until someone pointed out that my voice carried over the sound of the tractor. There was one time I decided I could go much faster and get done sooner. After about two days, Dad noticed the tines on the rake were either missing or loose. He watched me that afternoon and then I received the ultimatum; for every rake tine I broke, I would have to pay Dad five cents. Needless to say, I slowed down. After all I was only making 50 cents an hour.
The second half of my job was driving tractor for the bale buckers. No mechanized stacking here. This was the job of choice for many young fellows around the valley. I think they were paid three cents a bale and I was paid one cent for driving. The key was to get as close as possible to the bale (without running it over) so the buckers could just lift, buck and stack the bale on the wagon. When the wagon was full, back to the stack we went. At first Dad would oversee the stacking but as the summer went on, we figured it out and Dad was off to the next field. We put up a lot of hay in those years, in fields from Victor to Stevensville.
Today’s haying is much more mechanized but the need to get the hay up as quickly as possible remains. Although small balers are still around, more and more hay is put up with round balers or now, giant square bales. These machines are complex with some ranchers even going to school to learn how to use the machine. They’re not cheap either. When combined with the cost of a tractor to pull the machine, a farmer probably has close to $100,000 or more tied up in the machines.
I spoke with Tony Hudson, a local rancher who does custom haying here in the valley. He said these new big balers are complicated but they cover a lot of ground quickly and make very good hay. The bales have six strings on them instead of two and weigh about 1,400 pounds.
After checking out the baler, I watched as he moved down the field off of Eastside Highway. I have to admit I was a little jealous as he drove off in his air-conditioned tractor. But, those times out in the hayfield will always be special for me. It was a good summer job. Right Steve and Larry?