Home & Shop Companion 0037

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

A couple of weeks ago I said that we had just about harvested everything from the field for this year, but yesterday we had a visit from a friend who brought a bottle of cherry-black elderberry syrup, which herbalists say is supposed to be good against viruses. So after lunch we returned the favour by going down the lane and round the field gathering more berries which she took to make another batch. There has, however, been another small harvest, which is the experiment I wanted to tell you about.

In April and May we had very little rain, making the June hay crop lighter than usual, so I left half of the grass until July so it would bulk up a bit. Since then I have kept an eye on the regrowth on the June-cut piece, hoping for a second cut in August. Although farmers often get three cuts of grass silage here in Britain, the grass is not usually mature enough to take a second cut of hay, and the weather in August is generally wetter than June or July. This August was particularly mixed, with no anticyclones settling long enough to guarantee dry weather, and then in September we had a lovely settled warm period, frustratingly, while we were away on holiday. I tried not to think about the potential hay making weather I was missing, but the day after we returned home, the 20th of September, I harnessed the mares, got out the no9 and dropped half the grass, leaving the other half for late autumn/early winter grazing. When, a few days later, I told a friend that I had cut some hay, he said, ‘that was brave,’ meaning foolhardy, until I explained what I did next.

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The problem with late hay at this latitude is the dew; in July the grass is not usually dry enough to turn until after ten in the morning, but by September the dew doesn’t disappear until midday, and the grass starts to dampen once again by five. Knowing this, I had no intention of making hay in the usual way. Instead my son helped me knock a row of posts into the ground to make a Norwegian style hay drying fence. It has a straining post at each end and several horizontal wires running between the posts, the bottom one being a good foot or more above the ground, the others about 9 inches apart with the wire wrapped once round each post.

With the wires in place and a swath on either side turned towards the drying fence, we then loaded the grass onto the wires. I have seen this done in Norway several times, even when it was raining, and was shown how to do it on a small farm high up above the Nordfjord, one of Norway’s most splendid fjords. The trick is to pick up a small armful of grass, perhaps more like a couple of big handfuls, and gently throw it up a few inches and let it drop to the ground. Then you pick it up again gently to keep it loose and fluffy and put it on the wires, starting at the bottom and working upwards.

It is not a quick way to make hay, but once the hay is on the fence there is nothing more to do until you get the hay in. If it rains, the top gets wet as the rain runs down the stalks and falls to the ground. Meanwhile the rest of the crop is kept mostly dry, as the sun gets to both sides and the wind blows through it. I have used this method here on small patches before, in June or July, and it works even when there is significant rain.

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As a comparison, I also put some hay on a tripod and some into cocks. I have made some hay on tripods in most of the last twenty years, but never so late in the year, and although I thought it would be an interesting experiment, I was doubtful whether it would work in September. The hay I put into cocks was spread each morning unless it was raining, and because of the dew, put back into cocks before night. Compared with the hay fence, this grass dried much more slowly because of the dew and rain, and started to discolour, so I ended up taking a forkful each end of the day for Molly to eat. With the tripods, I tedded the grass and left it until late afternoon before loading the tripod, a necessity at any time of year because if it is too damp at this stage, it goes mouldy. Of the three methods, drying in the tripod seemed ultra-slow; when I put my hand into the hay on day three it felt little different from day one, with that chilled feel of dampness which in a more normal season would have gone by that stage.

On day six, we had winds of 20mph, gusting to 40, and when I went to the field in the early afternoon some of the hay had blown off the Norwegian style fence. Starting to pick it up to put it back on the fence, it felt dry to the touch, and although it might not have been quite dry enough to trample down in a loose hay mow, it would certainly be fine when left on top. So rather than putting the hay back on the fence for another day or so, and with dark threatening clouds above, I put a pallet on top of the sledge to make it twice as wide, which also meant I could stack it higher, yoked up Molly, who is more sensible in the wind, and gathered the hay. Instead of using a fork, it’s quicker to pull the hay off the wires by sliding your hands towards each other above each wire and dropping the hay on the ground. Then I pushed in the fork and loaded it onto the sledge, the low height of the sledge making it easier than forking the hay up onto a vehicle in the wind.

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Meanwhile, the tripod was still slowly drying. Tripoded hay usually takes two weeks to dry, but, as you can see in the picture where I took off a thin layer of hay off the lower section, the vast majority of the hay stays green because it is screened from the sun. On day fourteen and fifteen, while I was away with work, we had a month’s worth of rainfall, but except for the top of the tripod which acts like a thatched roof, the rest of the hay remained absolutely dry. However, the tripod is in the way of where I want to graze Lucy, so I have now fed the hay to Molly, but I could equally well have put it into storage.

The interesting thing is that the tripoded hay seems to take two weeks to make, given a good dry day on day one, almost regardless of the weather and in any month from June to September, and the hay fences, in my limited experience, seem to take a week, regardless of weather. As to labour, the fences definitely take longer to erect than tripods, but you can load them immediately and when the grass is wet, and there is less skill involved. The tripoded hay by comparison must be tedded first and there is more work getting the hay to the tripod, which can’t be started until the grass has lost all of its superficial moisture, which around here is never before early afternoon, and if the grass was mown late or the sky turns cloudy, it is sometimes better to wait until the following day, in which case you probably need to ted it again.

For farmers with reliable weather and a lot of hay to make, these methods will seem slow and arcane, but over recent years, here, in Norway and elsewhere, hay making has gone into decline because of the changing weather, being replaced by haylage wrapped in plastic. Although it may be slow, once you know how to do it, making hay on tripods or on Norwegian ‘hesjene’ are reliable methods in unreliable conditions. For me, my September experiment has saved another three weeks’ worth of hay, and gives me a little more flexibility, independence and resilience to my small-scale agricultural activities.

Take care, William

William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home & Shop Companion 0037
Home & Shop Companion 0037