Home & Shop Companion #0125
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
In the cool of this morning, the sky overcast, there was still the scent of hay in the air. It was not just mine, but people all around have been making hay. After a scorching day yesterday the hay is in, but the scent remains, especially as I near the barn. I was amongst the last to start because, as often seems to happen, I had a day away with my work, then two days later I had a customer come from afar, which I couldn’t cancel, but after I had done the work and he had gone away on Tuesday afternoon, I looked at the forecast and decided to put Lucy in the mower. We cut the acre patch near the barn and went then six times round the next bit and left it at that, because, as ever, Lucy should have been fitter, and even with frequent rests, that was enough. Early the next day we started again and cut the rest in the morning cool, I turned her out for a couple of hours until mid-morning and then we turned and tedded the hay.
Years ago in the SFJ, there was one issue with two particularly interesting articles. The first was about big teams, which later reappeared as the booklet ‘Big Teams in Montana,’ and the second was an article by a couple from the Mid-West, I think, and their experience using a single horse. Back then, I was working on a farm which, uniquely for Britain, used big teams. This was when I was just learning, so although I got to help harness and hitch up six horses to the John Deere plough, it was not me that did the ploughing. Nonetheless, I hoped I might do something similar some time, maybe on my own place one day. The following spring I did get to use six horses on a roller/harrow combination, but that was my only experience of a big hitch, as the horses on that farm were getting to be used less frequently, especially the big hitches, and later on, well, my life just did not go in that direction. In fact, as you already know, it went in the other direction, to using a pair, and often a single. So, as it turned out, the second article on using a single horse has proved to be more useful, one of the tricks that stuck in my mind being the ‘evening and morning routine,’ so instead of doing a big job all on one day, you start it one afternoon, then the horse has the night to recover, and a couple of feeds, before finishing the next morning. This is the approach I often take with mowing hay, which also makes the most of the cooler temperatures.
Unlike using big hitches when the critical factors are having amenable horses, putting each one in the right place and equalising the hitch, with a single horse the question both in the article and in my experience, is, ‘can he pull it?’ or, ‘how can I arrange things so he can pull it?’ With original British horse-drawn hay turning equipment, there is no problem because it was mostly made for a single horse, but mowing is altogether a different thing, unless you are lucky enough to find an efficient single horse mower with a secret stash of parts and are content cutting a narrow swath which is not going to match the working widths of most turners or tedders. So, as I was going up and down the rows this week, I got to thinking about modern equipment and using a single horse, particularly when at one corner the tedder stopped revolving. I looked to see whether the wheels were skidding, but no, they were turning so the mechanism wasn’t jammed; it was only the clutches having slipped into neutral; I turned the lever on each wheel and we were back in operation again. But what if that had been the end of the tedder or a sign or its imminent demise; after all, it must be at least seventy years old, maybe even a hundred?
One downside of the machines I use in any time-tight hay making season is that the hay turner turns but does not open out the swath, so unless the weather is set fair, I often need to go through with the tedder immediately afterwards, just to shorten hay making by a day, which can make the difference between good hay and indifferent rained-on hay. This year, I even tedded twice on day one. Given this double working, it is easy to see why people go for the modern tedders that pull the clumps apart and spread the hay evenly behind, maximising the exposure to the sun compared with keeping it in swaths. I know you can use these machines with horses, but unless you use an engine to drive the machine you can’t do it with a single horse; the machines require too much power, and you still only cover the same width as my old horse drawn tools. A significant reason for the increased power requirement, according to an engineer friend, is the power loss when the drive is rotated at right angles. With any ground drive forecart, there has to be a right angle gear between the ground wheels and the pto shaft, then on the tedder there is another where the drive shaft meets the transverse shaft to the rotors and another for each of the rotors, each one sapping power. With three horses and a four-rotor machine, these energy sapping turns are at least shared out between more rotors and more horses, and look to be a thoroughly workable arrangement, but for a single horse, simplicity in construction and gearing seems to be the key. So I was interested in the fork-type tedder introduced a few years ago by an Amish company, whose name I can’t remember, where the drive comes direct from belts round the wheels, beautiful in its simplicity.
By contrast, my tedder is more engineered in its design with all its gears enclosed; I am sure it is noisier than the new fork-type machine, but it does do a good job. At first, I used it as it was designed, with Molly in the shafts and me perched on the seat above those rapidly revolving tines. Though I did build a guard should I wobble to the side, I was still unhappy at the precariousness of my position, and now use it behind the hitch cart, as you can see, using offset hitch and shaft positions. This arrangement looks a bit peculiar and does mean that turning to the left is a little more restricted, but the wheels are kept off the hay and the horse is in line with the centre of draught of the implement. It works using the same shaft position and hitch point with the spider wheel hay turner, too.
The spider wheel turner I have used for about 15 years, replacing an early tractor-model side delivery rake, but on balance, I think I like the effect of the side delivery rake better. It keeps moving the hay when you turn at the corners whereas the spider wheel machine can bunch up a great lump when turning one way but leaves the hay almost unmoved when turning the other way. The other downside is its tendency to twist the hay into a rope, even when adjusted to move the hay with a glancing blow, which is of little consequence on straight upright grass. But especially when going through the horses’ dunging areas where the grass grows lank and often starts to fall over, that roping effect can leave clumps of wet close-grown stalks inside the rope, requiring the use of the tedder.
So if I had to start again, I think I would go for a side delivery rake. There are some good new Italian models, though they would need modifying so the central tines on each raker bar could be removed when turning two swaths separately, or one of those fork type tedders, which could easily do the work with a single horse. But for now, that is daydreaming, and things aren’t as simple as that, because Italy is a thousand expensive road miles away [and 30 of sea], whilst shipping a tedder from the US, given the increase in container prices since Covid and the drop in value of the pound against the dollar, would make my hay very expensive indeed. So, fingers crossed, let’s hope my old machinery keeps on going. The rake, I am sure will last for years, and I have plenty of old new-stock tines, and the tedder, well, if it has lasted since the 1930s, probably, surely it can do a few more rounds of the field?
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.