Home & Shop Companion #0022
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
At the end of my last letter I was trying to decide what to do with one patch of oats which I sowed as a green manure, but which was already going to seed because of the lack of water. The decision was easy in the end, because there were enough weeds in amongst the oats to make it sensible to tackle them sooner rather than later, then last week, as I had the horses in the mower, I mowed them after mowing half the grass for hay.
Starting to mow hay is something I still greet with a certain amount of trepidation. I am not worried about the horses, they have been doing this job together for eight years now, and I am not especially concerned about the mower, though if the grass gets blown or rained down it can be hard work, and slow if you have to cut a lot of it in one direction. My apprehension is really about committing to the task, because once the grass hits the ground, you have to make hay, good hay, bad hay or indifferent hay, no matter what the weather does. My unease usually lifts after a couple of turns around the field, because by then the decision is made, I know the mower is working, and the horses, after walking through standing grass on the first turn, know where to go, when to stop just past the corners and, with a bit of help with lines and voice, ‘gee back, gee whey back, Lucy a step,’ how tightly to turn and line up for the next swath.
After the wet of early June, the forecast on Sunday the 21st, the longest day, gave four dry days, increasing in temperature each day. So, on Monday morning I cut the grass under an overcast sky with a moderate breeze, ideal for the horses. Once cut, I rested the horses while I greased up the turner, yoked them up again and turned the hay to expose the thick stalks to the air and then tedded it to allow the wind to get through the swaths. The wind did the rest of the work that day, with the temperature scarcely getting over 20º C. [70ºF] I don’t mind a slow start with drying hay, as the wet grass will still get dryer, even without a lot of heat or sunshine, and without withering up the leaves; it’s later on when you want to push the moisture content down that the heat and sun really helps. My old neighbour always liked to have bright weather to bale the hay, ‘baling in the sunshine,’ he called it. And that is what we got, with temperatures in the high twenties [above 80º F] on Wednesday and Thursday.
In Britain, especially in recent years, the windows of dry weather for hay making can be few and short, but like this year, I am often the only one out mowing on a cool cloudy day, everyone else starting a day later. It does sometimes make me question my judgement, but compared with putting hay into big bales, my method of storing it loose is slower, so the earlier start helps. Starting early was also something I tried to do before we had our own field or mower. Having to rely on someone else to cut and bale the hay, which can be difficult when you only have a few acres, I put my trust in the weather forecasters and got the hay cut before anyone else. Even if there was a slight risk of a shower to start with, as long as the weather was improving, my hay was usually ready to bale first, so the contractor would come to me first before his more important customers were ready. Having your own kit, however, does allow more flexibility, and it is a relief not to be reliant on someone else at a time when everyone wants their hay done.
With the hay now in the barn, the pressure is off, but since I only cut half the hay in hope of the rest gaining some bulk, in a couple of weeks’ time there will be a repeat performance. But it’s good to have the barn at least half full of good hay before the end of June.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.