Baling Hay by Hand
Mornings are frosted. Nights are frigid. Snow has not yet flown here in our corner of the Southeast, but even the hardiest cool-season grasses have stopped growing. The pasture starts looking pretty bare in December.
The omnivores are busily subsisting on stored grain, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, veggies out of the covered garden and superfluous roosters. The herbivores have a harder time of it, this time of year. The goats are trying to sustain lactation just a little longer, while also (hopefully) growing next year’s kids. It takes a lot of calories.
Luckily, there’s hay. Prickly, sweet-smelling, long-storing sunbeams captured in a convenient carbon cage. It fills up the rumen, keeping a body warm as it gently ferments. One of my does turns up her nose at anything else. It’s that good.
I’ve only got five goats, so my hay cost is low. It saves so little money to bale my own that it’s not worth bothering with for that reason alone, even for someone so interested in frugality as I am. Then again, I’ve got about eight acres that must be mowed anyway. We’re trying to get productive orchards going, and it’s just not possible to plant and tend trees in ten-foot-tall blackberry and goldenrod. Either we knock them back to grass, or we accept the weedy, near-useless, invasive Bradford pear that will root on its own.
So, I’m cutting the hay anyway. It’s just lying there all green-golden in the sun, where it’ll lose its nutrition in a couple of days to sunlight and rain. Seems like a shame. I’ll have to fork over tens of dollars for the same stuff, possibly trucked in from states away. It’s very attractive to be able to take care of this need without crossing the property line.
I can’t spend $7,000 on even the smallest-scale baling equipment. Why so expensive? It’s a complicated job, when a machine has to do it. The equipment is heavy, and I hear it’s fiddly. Not so complicated for a human, though. Just a bit of work.
When the cut hay is dry, I go out in the sweltering heat. Snow flurries seem entirely fictional on a June afternoon, when I’m dripping sweat. I can rake the grass into rows and roll it by hand, then tie with leftover twine from purchased bales. But that’s a lot of bending over, and the piles are too loose for much handling. I know historically hay was stored in stacks, and some day I may learn to do that, but it sure is convenient to store it in the barn loft. Because I live in a rain forest, I worry about mold.
I looked at building a purpose-made device like this one, and it’s an attractive option. Cheap enough. Simple. I may still do it. I didn’t do it before haying time this year, though. I got all busy raising baby geese, hatching chickens, planting veggies. Suddenly I looked up and noticed I was surrounded by cut grass, crisping up.
What do I have that will work? I asked. It’s a very frequent question around here. What I had was a trash can that used to be a rain barrel. Perfect.
It already had two opposing handles and a hole to tie string to, so it only needed one more hole. It’s slick-sided, so the grass goes in easy and the finished bale slides out well. It weights nothing, which makes it easy to trot out just for a bale or two, and easy to move around the field (I’m not into lifting). It’s sturdy enough for me to climb into, to compress the grass and tie it off. It makes a bale about 1/3 the weight and density of a regular square bale, which is frankly much more pleasant to move up and down from the hay loft.
In a couple of hours on a couple of different days we put up 32 trash-bales, which is probably only about 11 square bales. Which is probably enough to get us to March. The quality seems to be good. They hold together well. Because it’s put in in rakefuls, the hay comes off in flakes like a typical bale, just looser. I’d like to have the option to cut it by hand, too, but have not yet invested in a genuine scythe.
No, hand-baling is not particularly cost- or time-effective. Much like breaking kindling and gleaning wild onion, we do it because it’s here, it’s free, and it’s useful. It's an opportunity to learn, and increase what I can do for myself. Hay shortages happen.
There are other hay-ish materials around, as well. For several years I have cut large amounts of tree hay. The goats really love it. This year an oak with a five-foot diameter trunk went over in the west meadow. I’ve been feeding limbs with dried leaves off that. This summer we did a trial of 13 different heirloom corn varieties, and now the stalks are standing dead and dry up in the field. The goats like to nibble the finer bits off those, so I’ve been slowly cutting them, one pile at a time. They’re still eating a little fresh grass, and a small amount of grain, minerals and supplements.
Making hay is one more step in the slow journey of bringing inputs on-farm. First, I have to learn to keep things alive. Then I can work on learning to keep them alive with what I can make, find and grow, with my hands and a few tools. The task is not simple or easy. But it’s very, very interesting.