Since moving to the Trust in 2006 we have been experimenting with some traditional European methods of hand hay making. Our aim is to find a way of making hay by hand that can be fitted around busy lives and unsettled weather.
While the main hay making season begins in July, after most of the wild flowers have set seed, hay making begins towards the end of May
The hay is cut using the Austrian style scythe. Most of the mowing is done early in the morning, as it is easier to mow the grass while it is still damp from the dew and before the sap pressure rises later in the day. After a couple of hours mowing, the mower returns along the windrows, flipping them over with the scythe. This exposes the slower drying stalks to the sun and wind. Then it’s time for breakfast! We are careful not to mow too much on any one session, preferring to cut smaller amounts over several days, so as not to end up with too much grass to deal with during the next stages of hay making.
Working the hay
After the dew has dried off the ground, usually by late morning, we go back out into the field and spread the hay, using pitchforks and hay rakes. Depending on the speed that we want to dry the hay we may turn it once more in the afternoon. We usually row the hay up every evening. This leaves minimum surface area exposed to dew (or rain if the weather is against us!) and we find that it much quicker and easier to re-spread the hay the next day from rows then trying to turn it when spread. It also allows the ground between the rows to dry. If we have a good weather window, this process is repeated over the next few days, until the hay is dry enough to cart and stack in the barn.
Progressive Hay Making
We usually have areas of hay at various stages of ripeness down on the field, because of the fact that we cut every morning during dry weather. The way we handle the hay gradually changes as it becomes drier. It becomes much lighter and easier to handle, and we tend to row it up into fatter windrows in the evening so decreasing the surface area exposed to the damp. We aim to keep handling to a minimum to prevent loss of leaf.
We have a trick up our sleeves if we have hay on the ground and the weather starts to turn, – traditional hay racks.
Hay racks of various kinds have been traditionally used all over Europe to aid in the making of hay where long periods of settled weather cannot be relied upon. They are also used where hay meadows are far away from the homestead. Grass can be dried to a stage where it is ready to rack during an intensive days working, then racked up and left to cure while workers move onto other areas. We have also come across numerous references to their use in the UK. For example, Elisabeth Downings book “Keeping Sheep” from the Garden Farming Series describes the use of a drying fence and a wooden tripod.
Using Hay Racks
We have experimented with several kinds of hay rack, and at the moment have settled on a design that looks like two small hurdles leaning against each other to make an “A” frame. The grass is dried as much as we can manage in the weather window available, then is stacked onto the rack as shown here. The tunnel through the middle of the rack allows air to circulate through the hay and the shape of the outside acts like a thatch, shedding most of the rain. The hay can be left on the rack to continue curing with minimum loss, then carted to the barn when it is dry and time/weather allows.
Stacking a rack is somewhat of an art. The wetter the grass is when it is racked, the looser it needs to be put on, to ensure there is sufficient air circulation so that it does not begin to mold. We have also had to work at creating the best shape for the top of the stack, bringing the shoulders in to create a rounded top that sheds water effectively.
We have left hay out on racks for several months and still found it usable by the end of it. In general though we have found that we get the best quality hay if we do not leave it out on the racks for too long once it has cured. The repeated heavy downpours that the last few summers have blessed us with have really tested them, – the addition of a canvas “hat” to the top of the rack as seen in some areas of Europe may help in this regard.
We have found hay racks a really useful addition to our hay making activities. They allow us to make hay in short weather windows. Just a day or two of settled weather is enough to get the hay dry enough to rack. This means that we can make hay in short manageable bursts, rather then having to face making large amounts during the increasingly rare sunny weeks! They are also useful if we know we are going to have to leave hay making for a few days. The hay can be racked up and we can safely turn to other activities, knowing that the hay is safe should rain come along. There is also a belief that slow curing, such as happens on a rack, leads to a better quality of hay, and we have certainly had some beautiful fragrant hay stacked in our barn.
For some wonderful pictures of traditional hay making from Europe it is worth having a look at www.leafpile.com