by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
Getting It In
Over the last few years of making hay, the mowing, turning and making tripods has settled into a fairly comfortable pattern, but the process of getting it all together for the winter is still developing.
In the beginning I did what everyone else around here does and got it baled, sometimes by a contractor or a neighbour, and sometimes I borrowed a tractor and baler. In some ways I liked having someone else to do this job because it took the pressure off doing it myself, especially if you are worried about someone else’s baler breaking down, but being reliant on someone else who probably wants to bale their own hay does add a further stress to getting the hay in. With hay made on tripods this urgency was not there, because the hay would not spoil on the tripod, and I could often bale when no-one else was baling, driving the baler from tripod to tripod and forking the hay into the pick-up reel.
Bales do obviously have some advantages, putting the hay into useful sized lumps which are easy to handle, load and stack, but they also have disadvantages. Besides the cost of baling and not being able to guarantee access to a baler when I wanted it, the Dutch barn I rented was over a mile away, so clearing the field with a horse was slow. For a few years I thought about stacking loose hay, but when all of my hay was on the ground in the midst of haymaking I chose the easy way out and continued putting it all into bales. My reticence was mostly fear of the unknown, having never had the opportunity to be present when a hay stack was being built, but one year I decided to try one small stack, following the instructions in Lynn Miller’s book ‘Haying with Horses’.
The success of this first stack encouraged me to do more, and now most of my hay is stacked loose. The stacks are not usually very big as it is rare for me to have more than an acre or two ready at the same time. When all the hay is forked onto the stack with pitch forks the small stack has some advantages, especially when relying on my children or other inexperienced people to fork the hay, but the smaller stack does have a greater surface area exposed to the weather compared with a larger stack. Another disadvantage of very small stacks is that they can easily become unstable. I now think that 10 feet is the absolute minimum diameter, because otherwise when the stack gets up a bit it is like standing on a jelly, and I have had the top of a small stack slide off, taking me with it. This is most disheartening, not to say potentially dangerous, and a good reason never to leave forks, ladders, bricks etc. around the bottom of a stack. If I was going to make a stack smaller than 10 feet in diameter, I would now probably build it around a post.
With only five or six years’ experience I am far from being an expert stacker, but for anyone with less experience, this is how I do it. For the base I usually use pallets and bits of wood to keep the bottom away from the damp ground. Then I first put some hay in the middle, walking round and round in a circle working towards the outside, making sure the outside forms a good round circle. At this stage the person on the load needs to curtail their enthusiasm to fork the hay down quickly, so the stacker has time to make the base of the stack solid and round. Then as the stack goes up, as Lynn describes, it is essential to make a good solid wall round the outside. I always put the hay down in big forkfuls and then stand on the lump I have just stacked. This compresses the hay and you can feel how solid it is under your feet. If I have one of the children forking small forkfuls, I put a few together before putting them in place and walking forward a pace. At the same time as keeping the walls solid it is also important to keep the centre high, so that any rain will run outwards. If you are getting stacker loads landing on the middle of the stack, the centre probably gets compressed enough and looks after itself, but in my case I need to walk round the middle, stacking forkfuls in place ahead of me to avoid the centre becoming slack, so it does not sink lower than the outside as the hay settles. When stacking the outside it is tempting to bring the sides in rather than keeping them vertical, especially on the side furthest from the load on a bigger stack or when you are working alone and having to reach for the hay. To help keep the sides upright next year I am going to put four posts in the ground to give me a guide. On all except the smallest stacks it is an advantage to have someone else on the stack to put the hay beside you so you only need to rotate each forkful a quarter turn round your body, allowing you to concentrate on the stack rather than reaching for the hay. Keeping the centre high is perhaps harder with a helper, as they compress the hay where they are standing, so it is a good practice to send them to stand quietly at the edge for a minute or two while you put an extra forkful where they were standing and then stack more in the centre to keep it high. When I get down off the stack to get another load, I usually walk round the stack to see how even and round it is. If it sticks out beyond the circle in one place, raking a bit out of the sides with a fork can help, but if there is not enough anywhere, you can’t add hay to gain width.
Once you are ready to draw in the sides to form the roof, keeping the circle even is perhaps more important, as it is at this point where any slackness in the build will allow water to penetrate. The greater mistake is to bring in the sides too quickly, because as the hay settles, the extra weight in the middle tends to push the centre down so the top becomes flatter. This is why in each course [layer] the centre should now be kept even higher relative to the edges. Continuing to work in circles, your helper will eventually not have enough room to stand, so should get down off the stack. As the top is reached only three or four forkfuls will complete the course. This is when the person on the load needs to slow down again and you still need to place the forkfuls carefully, one big well-made forkful completing the very top. A ladder carefully leant up against the stack is then essential, even on a small stack, not only because you might land on something if you were to slide down, but in the process you can unbalance the stack.
Once the stack is complete, I usually rake down the sides with a fork to tidy any loose bits, then throw two ropes over the top and tie a brick at each end. This prevents the top getting blown off in the first few weeks until the hay settles. Once the top has knitted together, if the stack has been built correctly the rain is shed off the top with only a minimum of wastage. Even with a small stack this wastage need be no more than 5%, and sometimes, depending on the year and what you are feeding you might be able to feed it all. For me, the time spent stacking loose hay in the field is almost saved by not having to take bales a mile away to the barn, and having the stack in the field where the hay will be fed saves more time in winter.
Gathering loose hay with a single horse, however, is significantly slower than collecting bales. When I make hay on tripods, because the hay has already been gathered together, forking hay onto the flat bed wagon is fairly straightforward, as the hay has settled on the tripods so is easy to fork off in good sized forkfuls. With cocks, the hay has also settled so is easy to fork onto a load, but both these methods require an additional stage of hand work compared with gathering hay from the swath. To speed up loading I have used a hay loader, but found that although one horse can pull it, it is too much to pull slowly enough for the comfort of man and horse. I do sometimes use it behind a tractor, with hay ladders at each end of the vehicle, and because the wagon is narrow, three ropes tied end to end along on each side.
Still on the search for a better way to gather hay with one horse, after rereading Ken Giles’ article on his trailed offset buckrake for a single horse [SFJ Winter 04] I decided to try making one. My buckrake is similar to his, but having studied the different American two horse buckrakes where the pull from the horses lifts the basket, I wondered if I could incorporate a lifting mechanism on a single horse machine. Looking at pictures in past SFJs, I decided to use two features from some horse drawn big bale movers, a braked axle and a sliding drawbar to lift the basket. The drawbar on my buckrake is a square tube which slides inside another square tube. When the rake is down in the gathering position, the drawbar is in its shortest position, held in place by a spring loaded catch. Once the basket is full, I stop the horse, pull a lever which lifts this catch and put my left foot on the brake pedal to keep the buckrake still. I then make the horse go forward and as the hitch cart goes forward, the drawbar is drawn forward inside the bigger tube. The rear of the drawbar is connected to a lever, and as this lever is pulled forwards, the other end of the lever which is connected to the top of the basket is pulled backwards, so lifting the basket. Once the rear of the drawbar reaches the end of its travel, another spring loaded catch holds it in place, keeping the basket in the raised position. As I hear this catch click into position, I take my foot off the brake pedal and we head for the stack.
To lower the basket, I stop the horse, put my left foot on the brake pedal, my right foot on the pedal to release the rear catch and back the horse a step. The drawbar then slides back, and the front catch clicks into position again. Continuing to back up with the brake off, the hay slides off the basket. When using the buckrake, the hitch cart shafts are offset to one side as when tedding hay, so the horse and hitch cart are not running over any hay and the drawbar of the buckrake is directly behind the horse. An improvement would be to have a pair of wheels and shafts rather than the hitch cart. Of all my attempts at metal fabrication, this mechanism probably gives me the greatest satisfaction, because it works pretty well, but there are some important downsides of the buckrake. First of all, it isn’t very quick taking relatively small amounts of hay to the stack and there also is a lot of backing and messing about for the horse when gathering hay, because after a while the hay starts to ball up and roll under the tines, so you have to back up and gather some more and have this happen again before going to pick up both lumps and taking them to the stack. Also if the ground is uneven the tines can dig into the ground, though up to now I have been quick enough to stop before a tine has broken. Once I get to the stack, the hay is obviously left on the ground, so without any mechanical stacker it all needs to be forked up to the height of the stack, whereas on a wagon it is already part of the way up.
The gathering of hay at the moment is the weak part of my system, and most years I use a mixture of methods. When I use tripods, forking the hay onto the vehicle and stacking it loose is the obvious next step, but when the hay is in the windrow the rest of the family prefer bales rather than borrowing a tractor and using the hay loader. The situation is soon set to change, as I intend to put up a barn with a hay track, though I will have to get the trolley from the States as they weren’t used in Britain. As to a better method of picking up the hay, after visiting the European equivalent of Horse Progress Days in Germany three years ago and seeing the Poettinger self loading forage wagon which had been converted to ground drive, I am wondering about making a similar machine using a pick up reel from a baler, but that will perhaps be a story for another time.