Fossil Fuels and Haymaking

“With tossing and raking, and setting on cocks, Grass lately in swathes, is hay for an ox: That done, go and cart it, and have it away, the battle if fought, ye have gotten the day.” Thomas Tusser

Haymaking is a battle, a war with time and nature, a struggle whose sole aim is to make “all flesh grass”. We no longer live a village life, an Amish life or a life with any real community where work is shared. Our farm workers now are the accumulated stores of long dead plant life burned as fossil fuels that power the equipment.

One man, with practice, can manually cut an acre of hay per day, rake an acre of hay per day, rick an acre of hay per day. That is steady physical labor, all day, for days on end, for the simple goal of having enough forage to feed his animals during the winter months.

Fortunately or unfortunately I do not have that type of stamina or time to devote to the manual cutting of hay. Instead we have a 45 horsepower Kubota tractor with all of the necessary implements.

45 horsepower: think about that for a minute, the power of 45 horses harnessed by one man for any number of tasks. Remarkable! We all use machines of such incredible power but so seldom reflect on what the power represents if absent from our lives. Absent and the center cannot hold, as Mr. Yeats wrote. Absent and we do not want to imagine the changes in store, cannot imagine.

This seasons first haymaking was fairly uneventful. On a fair Wednesday evening I hooked up the ancient disc mower to the aforementioned Kubota and began cutting hay. A soothing, methodical process of moving up and down the field cutting the fescue and clover at ground level, mowing is a great time to think. Six acres cut in three hours.

The following evening I tedded the field. Ted is an old English word meaning to spread hay out to dry. In the 19th century a machine was designed to spread hay out and was called a tedder. The tedder I use is my four wheel hay rake. An ingenious piece of equipment, ground driven (instead of “PTO”) I ted by changing the directions of the wheels. Instead of all four wheels pulling hay to a single windrow they work against each other and toss the hay around on the ground. This action speeds up the drying time. Time spent tedding six acres was two hours. Done by hand? Six days.

Friday afternoon I took off from work and raked the fields. Using the wheel rake it took two hours to rake six acres into windrows. It was easy work, with a real sense of accomplishment when completed.

Saturday: I woke early to find the sky heavy with clouds. The forecast had moved the incoming rain from late Saturday night to early afternoon. #%$&! A mad scramble to get the baler hooked up, tires inflated, chains greased, new twine installed and threaded through the machine. A quick trip to the co-op for some of that precious fossil fuel and I was ready to begin baling at 10. The first three hours were very slow. The dew still lay heavy on the dry hay causing the hay to jam the baling tines.

The round baler has revolving tines that pick up the hay and feed it into a chamber. Inside that chamber the hay begins to turn. As it turns it creates a round bale that measures four by four feet and weighs several hundred pounds. When the baler reaches capacity an alarm is triggered. I pull a rope that engages the twine which wraps around the bale securing the hay, a pretty nifty and simple action. A lever activated by hydraulic power raises the back of the baler depositing the bale on the ground. It looks like a large metal bird laying an egg.

Sometime between 12:30 and 1 the dew dried and the baler began cranking through the windrows. Loud, dirty and jarring, riding for hours on the tractor while baling the hay is not pleasant. Finally at 4 in the afternoon, the rain still holding off, the baler squeezed out the last bale and I turned to home. Six acres of hay baled in six hours.

Four inches of rain fell on the farm the next 24 hours. A lot of work to get the forage we need to feed the cattle this winter.

But, it could be worse without fossil fuel…indeed, much, much worse.

….From the archives

Reading this weekend: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: how human values evolve by Ian Morris

8 thoughts on “Fossil Fuels and Haymaking

  1. The Ian Morris title looks pretty interesting. While not fishing for a full review, I wonder if I might trouble you for a few thoughts. I did have a peek and see there are a few ‘chapters’ – essays perhaps? – of comments from others. These in particular look interesting. Your thoughts?

    And I take it you didn’t just get that 4″ of rain… but in the original timing of that particular piece.

    • Clem,
      I haven’t made much progress between cutting hay and having a dinner party this weekend. But I like the fact that he did invite opposing viewpoints. Although he reserved the final rebuttal in the book to himself.
      And, yes, that was an older post regarding racing the rain. I’ve got a much larger field to cut in the next couple of weeks. But I need that window of time to cooperate between my work schedule and the sun.
      Hope all is well,

  2. A window of time for first cutting is difficult enough… working around a work schedule makes it even more challenging. One wonders if the dog can be trained to drive a tractor?? 🙂 🙂

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  4. Maybe this is merely a thought in need of some maturing influences, but following up on your remarks here and at Chris’ SFF blog about mutton acceptance to today’s pallet I’m wondering whether (sorry… its like Chris using fleece…) whether mutton might be processed into a sausage that would be more appealing to the modern taste bud? That scale of food processing is certainly not something to take lightly – health department inspections and the like, but I seem to recall someone you know quite well buying a saw so he could cut boards from trees on the place… you could toss the idea around with him and see where it goes.

    And if sausage isn’t use enough – I can also imagine quart and half gallon jars of mutton stew with a Winged Elm logo for sale at the farmer’s market and all the better local foodie enterprises from Knoxville to Chattanooga. A lot of work to be sure – but what was it I just heard a wise man say recently? Oh yeah, “needs must outweigh wishes.” I need to buy that guru a beer.

    • This is a topic I’ll address in an upcoming post: the dearth of USDA processing plants for the small farmer.

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Any thoughts or questions?