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Making Hay circa 1900

August 3, 2011

I guess whoever said it was right: you’ve got to make hay when the sun shines.  The sun is beating down this week at the 1900 farm, so what better time to make it than now?

Hay is dried grasses, full of nutrition for the horses and cows.  It should not be confused with straw, as straw is the stalk of a cereal grain plant (like wheat or oats) that is used for animal bedding.

Making hay for use in the winter months is a process that has changed considerably, though little at all.  In general, farmers in 1900 would still endeavor to cut 3 times per year, and they would store the hay both in the barns and in haystacks.  The process of hauling the hay in was not as simple as using a tractor to hoist bales to a trailer.  The first step, of course, is watching the grass grow. Once the hay has begun to flower, it can be cut.

People have differing opinions on the best time to cut hay.  Some think it should be cut when it blossoms, others think just before.

After being cut, the hay is left for a few days laying in the field to dry or “cure.”  If the hay is not cured properly, the temperature inside is liable to rise to a dangerous level and cause a fire in the barn.  It would also have the potential to mold and lose nutrient value as well as make animals ill.  The rate of cure depends on many factors including the amount of rain or moisture in the air (humidity), how much dew or ground water is absorbed, and the amount of wind movement.  Once the hay has cured properly it is raked into windrows.

It is important to only rake the amount of hay that will be put into the barn on any certain day.  This is the same for farmers of both eras.  If you rake too much it is likely to become wet with moisture and sully the hay.  This hay would be of poor quality.  You would not want to dry and rake the hay again because the leaves and clover would fall off.  Those pieces hold the nutrients of the hay.  What is left would be coarse stalks of little value.

Once the hay is raked, it must be picked up.  This is where 1900 farmers and 2011 farmers deviate somewhat.  In the early 1900s, farmers would pick the hay up by hand or with a hay loader.  They would fill wagons with loose hay to bring back to the farm or the hay stack.  In 2011, farmers bale hay from the field either with a round baler  or a square baler, depending on the needs of the farm.

Farmers in 1900 would be putting loose hay in the hay loft of the barn.  At our barn, the hay is hoisted through an open door at the top using a grapple fork from the time period.  The date on the fork, presumably its’ manufacture date, is Dec. 15, 1891. Slings or other devices could have been used as well.  The process for putting hay in the barn involves four stations:

Someone leads the horse.  The horse is attached to a single tree or like implement which is in turn attached to a rope.  That rope is connected through a series of pulleys to the grapple fork.  The horse provides the draft power required to hoist the hay.

Another rope attached to the grapple fork is the trip line.  This line is engaged to open the fork and let the hay drop inside the barn.  It is also used to pull the grapple fork back out to the start.

One person must set the fork on top of the hay rack, and one needs to be inside the barn to spread the hay out across the hay loft.  The hay can be dropped anywhere in the middle, but someone must pack the hay and spread the hay to the outside edges of the barn.

The four people working together use a serious of voice commands to communicate. The person in the barn declares his or her readiness.  “Ready in the barn.” is the first command heard.  The person setting the fork then declares, “set.”  At this juncture, the person leading the horse moves the animal forward and the hay begins to rise.  When at the top, it clicks into the track at the top of the barn and slides into the loft.  At the appropriate time, the person in the barn yells, “trip” and the person on the trip rope pulls so as to engage the mechanism which drops the hay into the loft.  Everyone then returns to their starting points and the process happens again until all the hay is unloaded.

To give you an idea, check out this video, shot from the hay wagon as the fork takes the hay away.  Note the clicking sound when the grapple fork hits the track that carries it into the barn.

This is what it looks (and sounds) like from the inside of the barn;

The  process of putting hay in the barn was long and arduous, but essential for providing for the animals in the winter time.  Personally I think it is one of the most fun activities we do at the 1900 farm.  If you didn’t catch it this time, check back at the end of August/beginning of September when we will be hoisting the third cutting (weather permitting).

Read more posts on the LHF Blog


1900 Farm   Animals in Action   Farm Implements   Then and Now


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