by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
Hay on Tripods
For my neighbours, my way of making hay must seem a bit peculiar, not only because much of it is done with a horse, but also at any time I might have hay in a loose stack and some being baled, with some drying on the ground, some on tripods, and occasionally some in cocks. The reason for this variety of methods is partially because I use a horse, but also I sometimes need to be away from home during the hay making season, and in the unsettled weather conditions of the last few years it is useful to be able to make hay when the weather is not ideal.
To start with, however, I made hay on the ground by the usual method, turning it once a day with the horse, and getting a contractor to mow and bale it. Even when making hay on the ground, certainly in Britain there is a divergence of opinion about how and when to turn it. In one camp are those more traditionally minded folk who like to leave it untouched in the swath for a day or two, saying that it is damaged less by rain if it has not been moved first. This method probably has some validity when using side delivery rakes and spider wheel turners which invert the swath, leaving the leaves all tucked under away from the sun, but with the now ubiquitous rotary tedders, which thoroughly pull the rows apart and spread them horizontally, the already partly dried leaves are still exposed to the sun and so could become too dry before the stems have lost their moisture. In the other camp there are those who move the hay immediately, going through the hay sometimes two or three times a day to get it dry as quickly as possible. Leaving the issue of leaf loss in legumes aside, there have been studies which do show that the best quality grass hay is made by making it quickly. Even if the hay does get rained on in the early stages, having it drier by moving it before the rain comes still means that it is fit to carry sooner and is therefore of better quality.
My own method lies between these extremes, to suit the machinery and the time I have. To start with I tended to let the hay lie in the swath until the day following mowing. Once the dew had gone I then turned it with the side delivery rake, turning two swaths separately onto dry ground to expose the damp bottom of the grass to the air. Once I had a tedder, I usually went through the hay straight after turning, as this is the time when the grass takes the least damage from being tedded, especially if there is clover in the mix. On subsequent days turning it once a day was often enough to get it sufficiently dry to bale by the fourth day, when I put two rows into one for baling.
In recent years, coinciding with the arrival of my horse drawn mower, the weather has also become less settled, so if the forecast is for a good spell of weather I will mow a few rounds around the field in the evening and cut the rest of the field the following morning, and then turn and ted it the same day. On the following day it will usually get turned and tedded again, and then on the third day it might only need to be turned. Depending on the weather and the thickness of the crop, the hay will be ready to be carried on the third or fourth day.
In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods, and in 2009 when we only had one three-day spell of dry weather between the middle of June and the end of August, all of the hay was made on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked. The disadvantages are the time it takes to load the hay onto the tripods, the initial cost and time to make the tripods, and as I found out, learning how to do it.
Between the 1930s and 1950s the use of tripods became quite popular in Britain, largely due to the efforts of the Scots agriculturalist, Captain Alexander Proctor. His method was described by Newman Turner in his book ‘Fertility Farming’ under the chapter ‘Weatherproof Harvesting’, where he explains the process but concludes by saying that ‘expert instruction [is] essential to success.’ However finding expert instruction nowadays proved impossible, and I have only managed to talk to two people who used tripods in their youth. The first worked on the Wirral near Liverpool, and all he could remember was that when Mr. Proctor visited and showed them how to load the tripods, they had marvellous hay, but when they tried it again the following year the hay was no good. My other informant, Ron Creasey*, worked in the dry eastern part of Yorkshire where they used tripods for hay and for peas, but these ‘tripods’ actually had four legs and did not have any air vents at the corners, and in his experience the hay was not put onto the tripods until about half dry.
My haymaking with tripods has therefore been experimental, with snippets of information gleaned from books, and more recently a study done in the 1950s by the National Institute of Agricultural Engineers. My first experiment was at the bottom of our garden before we moved in, and having no choice about when to do it, I cut the hay with a scythe in the drizzle, threw it about with a fork and built the three tripods the next day when the grass was still damp to the touch. After a fortnight the tops were fine, but the lower half of each tripod had gone mouldy. After a dozen years of practice my results are much better, and one year I made some hay which was cut one dry sunny morning, then tedded immediately afterwards, though the ground was so wet that water was running round the inside of the tedder wheels. The hay was then put on tripods in the afternoon where it was rained and drizzled on for two weeks, until the next sunny day when I threw it on the ground in the morning and baled it in the afternoon.
There are two basic conditions for making hay successfully on tripods, the tripods must be built properly, and the grass must be dry enough when it is put on the tripod.If the grass is cut by mid morning and tedded immediately afterwards, on a hot sunny day the grass will be dry enough for the tripods to be started by late afternoon, and this stage can also be reached on a warm, lightly overcast but breezy day. However, if the grass has been rained on the night before, or if it is a cloudy day without much wind the hay may not be dry enough to load onto the tripods until the following day. The study by the National Institute of Agricultural Engineers showed that the hay is dry enough to load onto the tripods with a moisture content of 55%, though they suspect that with a skilled tripod builder 60% moisture is not too much. My experience is that the grass should not feel damp on the surface. If there are any damp lumps these can be put on the very top of the tripod, where they help weigh down the top and help it to settle. The procedure I follow at hay time is to leave the hitch cart, turner and tedder in the field the night before cutting hay, and if I am only cutting an acre or two, which is the maximum I cut at any time if I am going to use tripods, I will hope to finishing cutting soon after nine o’ clock in the morning. I then go straight to turning the hay to expose the bottom of the grass to the sun, still keeping the swaths separate, then put the horse in the tedder to get air into the swaths. It is then time for the horse to eat and rest until about three o’clock when I put her in the turner, with all the spider wheels in line, to bring the hay together for putting onto the tripods. First I turn two swaths together to leave a clear strip of ground about five feet wide where the tripods will be set up, and then turn the hay on either side towards this gap, leaving the windrows not touching each other so they can continue to dry while I build tripods. Depending on the thickness of the crop and whether I have someone helping me, I will take three to five windrows to make a row of tripods. In Newman Turner’s book he used a trip rake [dump rake] to bring the hay to the tripods, and the National Institute of Agricultural Engineers study used a buck rake, which would be more appropriate if working in a gang of four or five people, but I usually work on my own or with one other person, so it is easier to do all the horse work before starting to build the tripods. A good size for the tripods is to have the legs 7 feet long, and the bottom of the legs about 4 feet apart. The top of the poles are drilled about an inch and a half from the end and a loop of 3mm wire pushed through and the ends twisted together. Tying the poles with twine is not as good because it allows movement between the poles. Using round saplings rather than square sawn timber is preferable as it is stronger for its weight, so can be thinner and lighter. Some of my poles are only 1 1/2” diameter at the top. The wires which carry the hay are also 3mm thick, the lower wires being about 40 inches between poles, the top wires are 21”. I find I need about a dozen tripods for an acre.
Building the Tripods
- Place the tripod on flat ground and slide the first wire loop over the top of the tripod and down into position. Adjust the position of the poles until the wire is between 18” and 2 feet from the ground.
- Lean two plywood sheets against each leg to form the three air vents. These need to be about 16” square. [Fig 1] Using an inverted V of weld mesh or sheet steel is also possible, but invariably you catch your shins on it. Using two pieces of plywood also allows them to be pushed further in to create a better separation of hay each side of the air hole.
- Start placing handfuls of hay on the wire each side of the vents. This helps to keep the wire in position, and at this stage you may find that you need to adjust the position of the poles to keep the wire from getting too near the ground. When putting these first handfuls of hay on the wire I always bend the inside part back out again to help keep the air vent open. [Fig 2] Continue putting the first layer of hay round the rest of the tripod. Up to this stage I find it easier to use my hands rather than a fork. Any slightly damp lumps can be used next to the air vents. Otherwise they should be thrown to the side and used on the very top.
- Once the first layer is on the wire, gently fork small forkfuls on top of the first layer, working round the tripod. Load the wires evenly and avoid putting on too much at once. Try and keep the outside nearly vertical. To help keep the sides upright, after putting the second layer, put a forkful round the outside of each pole, so it only rests on the hay and not the wire. [Fig 3]
- Keep going round and round the tripod, adding small forkfuls, and putting some on the outside of each post when necessary. When the hay is about 3 foot high, I lean in and check there is still a good air space in the middle.
- When about chest height, put on the next loop of wire. [Fig 4] This should just gently press down on the last circle of hay. Put your arm down the middle to check the air space is still open.
- Slightly larger forkfuls can now be put on the tripod, forming an even circle of hay round the outside of the poles, leaving the centre filled only with air. It is at this height that the capacity of the tripod is at its greatest, if the outsides lower down have been kept upright. If you have a helper carrying hay to you, this is the time for them to remove the plywood formers and set up the next tripod and put the first layer of hay on with their hands. Meanwhile continue placing hay evenly round your tripod until the level of the top of the poles is reached. It is tempting to put some hay over the top when the poles are still sticking up above the hay, but this reduces the amount of hay on each tripod, and can lead to a gap for water to get in when the hay settles.
- Once the top of the poles is reached, two or three big, well-made, flat forkfuls of hay can be carefully placed over the complete top of the tripod. The last forkful, usually containing some damp grass finishes the job. [Fig 5] Grass dried on the tripod takes longer to dry than hay made on the ground. Even in hot sunny weather a week would probably be the very shortest time, but two weeks is normal. Although the outside gets bleached by sun and rain, 90% of the hay remains green as it dries. Once the hay is dry, after the top of the tripod is pushed upwards and onto a wagon, the rest of the hay which has settled is easy to fork in good sized forkfuls from each side of the tripod. The only awkward bit is getting the bottom layer off the wire.
The nature of experimentation is that I have made lots of mistakes, which can often be as useful as describing the correct way of doing something. One error when constructing the tripods is to drill the holes in the poles too far from the top, which prevents the top forkfuls of hay from settling properly. When loading the tripod, it is easy to have the lower wire too low to the ground, or too slack. With the wire only a foot from the ground, the weight of the hay pushes the bottom layer onto the ground, where it usually goes mouldy. The solution is to push the wires hard down on the poles with the first circle of hay on them, making sure they are still at least 18” from the ground. The next mistake is to put the hay on unevenly, especially if you are in a hurry, which means when the hay settles it can cause gaps for rain to get in. It is also tempting to push the hay too far in towards the centre of the tripod so there is not enough air space. I like there to be a column of air about a foot across right up the inside of the tripod. To keep this gap, rather than being a template for the shape of the finished tripod, the poles should be seen as bearers for the wires, and the hay should be balanced evenly either side of the lower wire, rising vertically. For a few years I followed the angle of the poles upwards, ending up with a tipi shaped tripod, which did work but did not carry much hay. The problem came when I reached the level of the second wire, when the air space had completely disappeared, and I also had no platform to load any more hay. I then had to push the corner of each forkful between the poles with my hand in order to keep it on, and even then there was not enough hay to stop the top settling dramatically. In practise the width at the top was so narrow that the lack of air space did not matter and the tripod still shed the rain, but the top was slow to load, and the capacity of the tripod was greatly reduced.
There are also some variables with the poles themselves. Following Ron Creasey’s experience, I have also tried four poles instead of the three. These quad-pods work OK and also carry more hay because there are four lengths of wire instead of three, and it is easier to keep the air gap open. But with the extra length of wire and the extra weight of hay the bottom also tends to sink to the ground. If moving the hay by hand, the extra capacity of the quad-pods means the hay has to be carried further. The four poled structures are also harder to put up if the ground is uneven, and it is harder to keep the bottom wire in place. Also when taking the poles and wires for the quad-pods to the field when all the wires are together in a bunch, the bottom four sided wires are also harder to separate as they tend to bend back on themselves, whereas the triangular ones stay flat. Having tried both types, this year I found myself turning my quad-pods back into tripods.
The other variable is the length of the poles themselves. Depending on what has been available in the hedgerows, I have used poles from five to eight foot, but always with wires of the same length. This has made the tripods into more or less dumpy shapes. Less than six foot means the amount of hay per tripod is reduced, but if you only have five foot poles and not much hay to make, they are fine. When the poles get to eight foot it is harder to put those small forkfuls around the outside of the poles (because the poles are at a steeper angle), so the tripod tends to be get narrow too quickly so reducing its capacity.
In comparison with making tripods, putting hay in cocks is easy. The important thing is to use the effect of gravity which has made the hay settle relatively flat in the windrow or swath. Then as you put your fork into the hay, lift it upwards and sideways to separate it gently from the hay next to it. Then this forkful can be put on top of the next part of the row, and both pieces lifted up in the same fashion. This larger forkful then is placed flat on the ground to start the cock, and the process is repeated, placing these forkfuls centrally on the partly built cock, until the cock is big enough. Especially when making a big cock, the forkfuls need to be wide enough so that each addition of hay fills the entire circle. If you use smaller forkfuls, the cock becomes unstable. Giving the finished cock a tap on the top probably helps it settle.
There are two situations where I still make hay cocks. If it starts to rain when I am making tripods I change to making cocks, as any external moisture leads to moulding in the tripod. With the greater speed in building cocks, the hay also gets less wet, but it will need to be spread out again to dry before making into tripods. The other time I cock some hay is when I have some drying on the ground and it gives rain overnight, especially if the hay is nearly dry. In this case it can finish drying in the cock before being taken to the stack, but if the hay has only been cut for a day or two, the cocks will need to be taken apart the next morning and spread on the ground to dry. Although this is a lot of work, the quality of the rest of the hay is preserved because only a small percentage of the hay in the cock gets wet from the rain, and the difference in colour from the rained on swaths and the hay put into cocks is very noticeable. If a cock of nearly dry hay gets rained on, I generally take the top off and spread it about to dry, and regardless of the weather I usually turn the whole cock over so the damp absorbed from the ground can dissipate before loading onto a vehicle. To make hay really quickly, in terms of days but not man hours, putting hay into cocks is probably the quickest method, as the hay can dry quickest when spread out during the day, but only a small part of it gets damp with dew whilst in the cock overnight.
As I am finishing this article at the end of July, Britain has experienced the wettest April, May and June on record. The hay I cut on the 14th of June and put on tripods was rained on every day except one for a month, often with over an inch falling in a day. On the 12th of July I threw the hay on the ground for the sun to dry it enough to put in a stack, but half of it had gone mouldy. Since the bottom of some of the tripods were actually standing in water, and there had been no warm air blowing through the tripods, this was not surprising, but it does point out that no method is perfect. After yet another week of rain, we had another dry day, so I cut half an acre on wet ground, and to avoid getting the hay muddy carried it with a fork and put it on a Norwegian style fence whilst still wet as an experiment. After a week the hay was dry enough to stack, but a day later dry weather came at last, so the hay on the fence had to stay there for a few more days so I could make the rest of the hay in the usual manner.
Having made the rest of my hay in a week, the effort of making hay on tripods [or on a fence] seems like a lot of work, but for me it still is a useful method.
* Ron Creasey; last of the horselads – by William Castle, Old Pond Publications 2012