by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty and Laura Littlefield
All was silent as before —
All silent save the dripping rain.
– H.W. Longfellow
As I sit and watch rain fall on new mown hay I can’t help but think of the experiences of farmers of yore. I think in particular of the Hjorts, George and Kristina, who100 years ago lived in the house where I now live and mowed hay in the same river-bottom fields I now mow. I wonder that an accurate weather forecast was not available to them, a fact almost unbelievable to a culture grown accustomed to computer generated weather models, satellite images, 24-hour TV weather channels and hourly smart-phone updates.
Over the last couple of weeks I have almost obsessively checked the weather — waiting for five sun icons in a row to appear on the computer screen. That would be enough time early in the season to get a few acres of mixed meadow grass cured and stored in the haymow.
The 4th of July dawned sunny and beautiful and the next several days looked favorable. June tends to be gloomy, but July typically turns lovely in the Pacific Northwest and our farming forebears in this region made hay in that month. So I greased up the John Deere Big 4 and, in deference to tradition, celebrated the 4th with my family and friends and waited to mow until the 5th. As predicted the sun was shining and summer seemed to have finally arrived. We tedded the hay each day, aerating it with the old machine’s lifting and fluffing action, very nearly approximating a man working through the field with a pitchfork.
Incidentally, the term “ted” comes from the Old-English “tend.” Haying around here really does require a lot of tending. Grass simply won’t cure itself just laying there on the ground the way it does in arid climates. Despite the favorable forecasts and with only a 20% chance of rain called for, seemingly out of nowhere the clouds rolled in and the rain fell for two days.
Thinking of my forebears, I reasoned that George would also have cut his hay on the 5th. I imagined him, like me staring out the kitchen window at the pouring rain, coffee cup in hand shaking his head at his misfortune. Or would he? Perhaps he would have been more resigned than I? More accepting, more at peace with the unpredictable nature of the weather and the way his and his family’s life was bound up with its fickle disregard for human needs and desires. Would his lack of up-to-the-minute weather forecasts have affected his choice of tools and techniques?
I know from the jaunty old photo of George’s sons Torvald and Conrad that they made haycocks here on the farm, so I imagine they must have just expected it to rain — cut when you can, but expect rain and hope the sheltering effects of a properly made hay cock will get you through. I, however, am addicted to the labor saving action of the loose hay loader and so don’t build haycocks. I’d like to think that our modern forecasting tools can let me do my haying at opportune times and thus avoid the work of building hay cocks and in turn hand loading them on the wagon.
After a day of rain the sun has returned and as I write this I can hear Joe out driving a Fjord team on the tedder, the machine clacking and clanging away, tending to the wet grass, which we still hope to turn into cured hay. Even when it is humming along that old machine sounds like a runaway and not infrequently makes my heart skip a beat. Rain is much more destructive to three or four day old cut hay than to one or two day old and I think this crop, with ample fluffing still has the potential to be surprisingly good considering the amount of rain that fell yesterday.
This evening I raked the hay into windrows with the side delivery rake. Inevitably when the rake picks, folds and flips the hay we find that there is always some on the bottom that is seemingly untouched by tedder or sun and looks as green as the day it was cut. The rake does a nice job of bringing this green hay to the top of the windrow for further curing.
The forecast does not look promising. Looks like we have two more days of dry weather before the rains return once again.
After a couple of decent days I made the decision to hook up the hayloader and get some hay in the barn. It has cured nicely though in a perfect world I would wait one more day, as there are still a fair number of slugs in it. In the Northwest not only do we have multitudes of garden slugs that like to munch on crisp lettuces, but we also encounter slugs of another kind. A hay slug is a little green wad of hay tucked in with perfectly cured hay. A few are ok and in our loose hay system always dry down nicely in the barn. However, loading the hay this afternoon there were more of these hay slugs than I like to see so we will have to limit the amount of hay that goes into the loft. Loose hay fluffed nicely and not stacked too deeply will finish curing beautifully in the barn. Seeing the amount of green still in the field I know that I have more than I dare safely put in the barn.
With more rain forecast and inspired by the old picture of Thor and Conrad amongst the haycocks I decided if we were to save the three acres right around the house we had better go old-school and try making haycocks. I gathered all available help, distributed pitchforks and commenced making little haystacks out of the windrowed hay. With the hay virtually cured and little fear of heating, we made stacks as large as we reasonably could. We aimed to build a cock with good straight sides and a moisture shedding, rounded cap on top. The idea is to get as much of the crop as possible under a protective outer layer of sacrificial hay. The outer six or so inches will be wet and turn brown while the hay inside stays green and dry. The job went surprisingly quickly with the whole field cocked by noon. By four o’clock it was raining.
The haycocks withstood two days of solid rain. This morning, reaching a hand into the stack, I was pleased to find the hay inside perfectly dry with a pleasant fresh odor. With rain once again forecast for tomorrow we decided to peel off the spoiled outer layer and load the preserved inner hay on the wagon and haul it to the barn. Unsure of how much rain a haycock can take before the inner layers start to moisten, and with such an uncertain forecast I decided to put the good hay in the barn while we had the opportunity. We peeled off the spoiled outer layer, evenly distributing it over the field stubble and hauled the good hay to the barn. Overall the haycock experiment was a big success. Had we left the hay in the windrow it would have undoubtedly spoiled beyond saving.
As I sit here typing up the rest of these notes, and with an SFJ deadline looming we are still waiting for the arrival of summer. We have not yet had more than three consecutive days without rain. The temperature has rarely exceeded 70. We have several tri-pods in the field attempting to cure green hay using techniques that peasants have used in extremely wet climates the world over. I will tell this tale in full in the next issue after it has finished unfolding. In the meantime I will be grateful at least that we are not dealing with the extreme heat that much of the country is facing.
So is weather-knowledge power? Does having a computer with 24-hour forecasts make me a better farmer? Looking back on the last month I would answer with a resounding NO. Not only have the weather forecasters been wrong more than right, but also I find that I generally put too much stock in their predictions often making choices that prove costly.
Farming is about choices. Choices that at times feel like a Faustian bargain. If I mow too soon my efforts may be spoiled by rain. If I wait I may not have adequate curing time before it rains again. If I delay longer still, waiting for that perfect run of good weather, I run the risk of having nothing but rank, stemmy and overly mature hay with ever diminishing nutritional value.
Haying with horses either simplifies these choices or makes them more complicated depending through which lens one chooses to look. No doubt haying with horses takes more time: fewer acres cut in a day, fewer tons gathered to stack or mow in a single day. I view this as a way of spreading risk, a guarantee that I will never have all of my hay on the ground at the same time. If I have three or four acres of hay on the ground and lose it all- at the end of the day that is still only 3 or 4 acres, not 30 or 40. Of course the big tractor farmer will tell me that when he gets a good stretch of weather he can get all of his hay cut and cured at once. That is his advantage. I, of course, am a horse farmer — I don’t even own a PTO mower, or baler. I choose to see the side of the coin that tells me I may lose a little hay here and there as I go, but that I am better off not putting all my hay-eggs in one speedy tractor-basket. That is to say nothing of the value inherent in this slower way of working.
Farming never fails to dish up one lesson in humility after another. Despite having all the weather knowledge the information-age has to offer, farmers will still lose hay to the rain, apple blossoms to frost, winter wheat to drought… If we are slow to learn humility in Nature’s presence we can be sure that another lesson is never far off.