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.