Home & Shop Companion #0072
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It’s not quite the middle of summer, but at this latitude the days are long, with sunrise well before getting up time, and it is still light when I go to bed. Usually, hay making around here does not begin before the middle of June, but two weeks ago some were already out mowing, for silage more than hay, but with the settled weather quite a bit of hay has been made too.
Because I work for myself, theoretically I can fit in my agricultural activities with my other work, but in practise there are some events that need to be given priority. Hay making is quite high on that list, but higher still is going out to where musicians are gathered, to show my wares, the violins, violas and cellos, because for financial reasons, selling just one is more important than making hay, even if I ended up having to buy it all. With such gatherings having been few and far between in recent months, I have made the most of two such events on the past two Saturdays. Since both were before the middle of June, I didn’t give hay making much thought, and then my neighbours started dropping their grass, with good reason as the weather was set fair and hot. So for the second year in a row, I was not ready in time for the first hay making opportunity. This year it was because the mower was still set up as a two-horse machine, I have a problem with the trip on the hay track, and although I intended to harness Lucy every day in advance of cutting hay to get her fitter, I had only just got started. I probably shouldn’t worry, there is still most of the summer in front of me and the hay could do with bulking up before cutting.
If quantity is one reason for not cutting hay too early, maturity is another. My old neighbour over the road used to be a dairy farmer and from the time he started in the 1950s, he always made hay for his cows. After moving here with his horses, he made hay for horses, and it was rare for him to make hay in June because, as he put it, ‘we’re not trying to milk off it.’ That’s the maturity factor – less sugar and less protein, but more roughage which the horses need.
A week ago, much of my grass still looked quite thin, except for the patch of about an acre between the barn and the vegetables, which was growing long and thick at either side and thinner up the middle where the land is less fertile. So with more days of fair weather ahead, I decided to cut just that patch, an introduction for Lucy to single horse hay making.
In Britain, most hay making machines were designed for a single horse in shafts, not because farms only had one horse, but because one horse was sufficient to pull machines that turned or tedded two swaths, with the horse walking on the bare ground between. Using two horses instead of one would have decreased the time the horses needed to rest, but with a high proportion of farm workers to horses, the hay could get turned even more quickly by adding another machine and another horse. The exception to the single horse norm was mowing machines, which were mostly built for a pair of horses. Having mowed with a single and with a pair, I appreciate having that extra horse power, but now that I am not working Molly, I am back to a single horse.
So, a week ago, my son and I jacked up the front of the mower, rested the pole on some blocks, dropped the cutter bar to the ground and removed the stay rod and the bolt that holds the draught bracket to the tongue. After the three bolts which hold the tongue to the frame were undone the pole came away. It was a sad moment for me, underlining the reality that Molly won’t be doing this job again, because besides that extra power up front, I valued her calm and benign presence. The shaft set up I made when I first got the mower was still as I left it seven or eight years ago when Lucy was three and joined Molly on the mower for the first time. It went back on easily enough, the three bolts to the mower frame first, then the stay rod and the draught bracket. In normal use when using two horses, the draught bracket goes directly underneath the pole, but when I made the shafts, I made an additional bracket so the draught bracket goes on the side of the stub pole, and the shafts are offset by the same amount. With a pair of horses, the centre of the doubletree needs to be in line with the pole, which gives enough width, next to the standing grass, for the offside horse and a narrow singletree. On single horse mowers, however, the position of the shafts and line of draught is nearer the grass, because with a one horse mower, you can design it to put the horse in the true line of draught. So although my mower, a McDeering No. 9, was designed as a two horse machine, it seemed worth the effort to move the centre of draught nearer the grass. When I used it, neither shaft rubbed against the horse, suggesting I had made a good decision. With the apparatus at the front swapped over, I made the usual checks, oil level, grease points, tightness of bolts, sharpened the knife, replaced one of the sections and checked how well it ran under the clips, oiled it well and attached the pitman stick.
As anyone who has ever done it will attest, lifting a mower pole is hard, it is heavy. If you lift it three feet away from the end, where the weight is carried when using shafts, it is heavier still – that is the physics of levers. Luckily for me, the tip cart [or dump cart] harness I use has big wide pads which rest on either side of the horse’s spine, thus spreading the weight. To keep the shafts up, a chain passes over a groove in the cart saddle and hooks onto the shafts at either end. Normally when hitching to a cart, you hook one of the short trace chains to one hame hook to hold up the shafts while you pass the back chain over the cart saddle, but mowers, even the original single horse mowers, use long traces and a singletree instead of short shoulder chains, so you haven’t got that option. So when I made the shafts, I made a removeable leg to support the stub pole when the mower is not in use, which keeps the shafts at the right height.
A few months ago, I wrote about how I always keep a horse in position once I have unhitched from shafts, give her a scratch, make her come forward a step, then stop again, calmly and companionably. On that occasion I wrote that I also backed her up a step again before leading her away, because I thought I might need to, sometime.
That ‘sometime’ came when I wanted to back Lucy between the mower shafts, where the britchen, britchen chains, traces and hooks are all potential places to catch. At least without blinkers she could see where she was going, because backing blindfold into the end of a shaft is not something to endear a horse to a new sensation. She was a little reluctant to go backwards at first, so I took my time, lowered my breathing, gave her a scratch on the neck, and it went just fine. I did, however, rope in my son so he could keep an eye on his side, pass the back chain over as soon as Lucy was in place, and to do anything else which became necessary, like standing at her head while I knocked out the bolt that holds the removeable leg. Once all hitched up, off we went to cut some hay. Without doubt, a four-foot six cut in that hay, with that horse, in that state of fitness is hard work, and I had to rest her every round. Whether I will shorten the cutter bar in future to make it easier, I don’t know, but the width of the swaths would be all wrong for turning, so I will see how it goes this year, build up her fitness before the next onslaught, give her plenty of rest, a good neck scratch and a good wash down when she finishes.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.