The art & science of hay

Next time you toss your horse a flake of hay, take a moment to appreciate the renewable resource at the heart of the horse world.

Cutting open a bale of hay and doling it out to your horses is one of those chores we all do countless times. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live where there’s year-round pasture, you probably do it several times a day, especially in the cold months. And, if you’re like me, you probably don’t think too much about hay unless you’re shopping for it, storing it or hefting it around the barn.

“Hay is humble stuff, it’s true,” says Steven Hoffbeck, a history professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and author of The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families. “When an old farmer from northern Minnesota found out I’d written a book about haymaking he said, ‘Imagine that—that someone could write a book about the lowly subject of making hay.’”

But throughout history, hay was much more than just animal feed: Dried fodder was the main fuel of the pre-automotive era. Without it, armies couldn’t move any faster than men could march, and all overland transportation would be limited to regions where grazing was available. Hay also made large scale agriculture possible: Cattle and other livestock couldn’t survive winters in northern climates without hay, and horses would be a luxury only the wealthiest could afford.

And even for the modern horse owner, hay is more than just a convenience. I can’t imagine trying to keep my horses nourished without a full hay shed during a long winter here in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Even my easy-keeping Haflingers would be in trouble. And droughts, like the ones in California, would take on a whole new urgency without a stockpile of hay.

Yet that familiar square bale we all rely on is a modern invention—barely more than 100 years old. Before that, hay was stored loose, in haystacks or piled into haylofts, one pitchfork full at a time. And your whole town’s fortunes might rise or fall based on the year’s hay crop. In fact, the more you understand about the long history of hay and haymaking, the more you’ll appreciate the convenience of our neat, stackable, shippable bales.

Here’s a brief overview of the history of hay, from the hand-held scythe to the gas-powered tractor and into the new millennium.

The earliest hay days

When animals become domesticated, they need to be fed year-round. In an agrarian community, your local climate would dictate how you cared for your livestock. If your tribe was nomadic, you might have spent your life following your flocks or herds to better grazing throughout the year. In the mountains, you might have moved your animals to high meadows in the summer and brought them down to closer pastures in winter. In warm climates, your animals might have been turned loose to browse throughout the year. In colder lands, you might have cut “leaf hay”—leafy branches from deciduous trees such as alder or willow—and allowed them to dry as winter forage for your ruminants.

And, as archaeological evidence shows, if you lived in Iron Age or Bronze Age villages in northern climates such as Scandinavia, you might have cultivated fields of local grasses or sedges specifically to harvest as forage. Meanwhile, alfalfa was first cultivated around 2000 b.c. in its native area, which is now Turkey and the eastern Caucasus Mountains. The Romans encountered alfalfa hay when they expanded their territory into that region, and soon this ideal horse fodder was grown across much of their empire.

By the Middle Ages hay was a staple crop in European communities that relied on oxen and horsepower. But harvesting a field of grass was labor intensive. You might have used a sickle—a type of curved blade mounted on a short handle used primarily to harvest grain—but the most state-of-the-art technology was a longer handled tool called a scythe. The scythe allowed you to work standing up, and you could also bring down a larger swath in one swing of the blade. One person could now easily mow an acre, perhaps two. But mowing was still intensive labor.

“The early farmers invited their neighbors and made the day a party,” says David Tresemer, author of The Scythe Book: Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools. “They’d start mowing at morning light, work hard for several hours and then rest around noon for a very long lunch—three hours or so—stopping to eat and drink beer. The beer was important. It was intended to bring on a nap. After the nap, they’d work again until sundown.”

Once the hay was mowed, you would rake it by hand into windrows to dry before forming it into haystacks for the winter. In later years, you might load your hay into wagons and bring it home to store in your hayloft or silo. “To avoid rotting, the farmer tossed the hay into a mound, keeping the center of the stack high and well packed while building it,” says Hoffbeck. “This way most of the settling would take place on the sides or edges so that rainwater would shed along the outside walls of the stack.”

And, just like today, you had to hope that the weather would offer you a stretch of warm, sunny days so you could get the hay in safely. “Dry weather was always best for haying,” says Hoffbeck, “but not too windy because the wind could blow the leaves right off the hay. The race was against rainfall. If you had the hay in windrows and a heavy rain came, the sodden hay could rot, turning moldy and worthless. Then it would be good for animal bedding only.”

To the New World

European settlers brought a number of Old World hays to America—orchardgrass, bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. In the early 1700s a New Hampshire farmer named John Herd found a tall-stemmed grass growing in a nearby meadow (although it was introduced from Europe) that earned a local reputation as a quality horse fodder. Then, in the 1720s, Timothy Hanson began cultivating and selling Herd’s grass from his farm in Baltimore, Maryland, and “timothy’s hay” soon became established as the dominant species of grass hay in the Colonies.

Farming technologies had changed little since the Middle Ages. The old European plows were heavy and cumbersome, made largely of wood. Thomas Jefferson, during his time as minister to France, spent some time watching these plows at work and began working on a better design. He reshaped the moldboard—the part that lifts and turns the soil—with a curve that he called “mathematically demonstrated to be perfect.” The new plow could be pulled with minimal force. A wooden version of Jefferson’s new plow was in use at Monticello by 1794, and in 1814, the new design was first cast in iron.

Meanwhile, Jefferson corresponded with and encouraged the work of another innovator, Jethro Wood, who was also refining the plow. In 1819, Wood received his second patent for his plow, which featured a lightweight, efficient design with a cast-iron moldboard and interchangeable parts, which meant that a broken plow could be repaired rather than replaced entirely. In 1837, John Deere began mass-producing another innovation at his first plant, in Illinois—Midwestern soil would not stick to his plow’s blade, which was made of steel.

But at the dawn of the 19th century, the scythe was still the only way to mow a hay field.

An agricultural revolution

In the early 1800s, U.S. territory was spreading westward, and 80 percent of the population either lived or worked on farms. Much of the work was still done by hand. But the wide-open spaces of the West drove demand for more efficient ways of farming, and a number of new machines were invented.

And, finally, a mechanical alternative to the hand-held scythe came on the scene. Patents for the first horse-drawn mowers were awarded to Peter Gaillard of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1812 and to Jeremiah Bailey of Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1822. Several similar machines of different designs were patented over the next few years. The first mechanical hay rakes and tedders soon followed, joined by reapers, threshers, binders, cornhuskers, hullers and a host of other agricultural equipment. And because a smaller number of people could now work larger tracts of land more efficiently, farms began growing into large businesses, shipping their surplus across the continent and even overseas by railroad and waterways.

The demand for horses strong enough to power all of this equipment across the growing nation was also rising. Draft horses were imported from Europe to help fill the need—increasing the need to harvest and store hay more efficiently. Transporting and storing loose hay was becoming too cumbersome to meet the skyrocketing demand.

In the early 1850s, H. L. Emery of Albany, New York, began producing stationary hay presses that compressed dried grass into two- by two- by four-foot bales that weighed 250 pounds. Over the next decades a number of new machines became available that for the first time turned hay into a commodity that was easily shipped over longer distances and stored compactly on farms. Different machines created bales of varying sizes and shapes, and many required multiple people to operate them.

In 1859, immigrants Wendelin and Juliana Grimm settled in Minnesota and planted alfalfa seed they had brought with them from Germany. By selecting and replanting seeds only from the hardiest plants, they developed a strain of alfalfa that would withstand harsh Northern winters. Virtually all the alfalfa currently grown in the United States can be traced to the seed the Grimms carried with them to America.

From draft teams to tractors

By the end of the 19th century, steam engines were beginning to power a variety of farm equipment, and in the 1890s, Iowa inventor John Froelich invented the first gasoline-powered tractor. But the transition from horse-drawn to gas-powered farm machinery would take decades.

“The key element would always be if the farmer could afford to buy the new equipment,” points out Hoffbeck. “It was a big change to go from horse-powered farming to tractor-powered farming. But, if a farmer did not modernize he’d probably have to get out of it because his neighbors would be more efficient. The farmer who did not modernize would find his neighbor buying up his farmland.”

By the late 1930s, automatic string balers were becoming widely available. These automated the entire process of hay baling, including tying off the bales, and standardized the familiar square bale we all know so well. Hay had truly come of age, but many of these machines were dangerous as well. “One mistake could cost you your life,” says Hoffbeck. “Farming was and still is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States because of the nature of the equipment and the fatigue of long working hours.”

Still, Hoffbeck recalls the era with some nostalgia: “Haymaking in those days was part of the seasonal rhythms of the everyday life of the farmer. To grow up on a farm meant you knew what life was about. You were in touch with life, yourself and your family. You worked alongside each other and you spent more time with your family.”

Twenty-first century hay

Haymaking has come a long way since the time when each village and town raised and cut its own supply by hand. Today, hay is the third largest agricultural crop grown in the United States, behind corn and soybeans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 55.7 million acres of land are used in hay production, and the total crop exceeds 119 million tons per year, most of which is used domestically to feed cattle, small livestock and the horse industry. And beyond round and square bales, our choices have been expanded to include hay that has been chopped and compressed into cubes, pellets and other forms.

These days, hay production is becoming much more of a science. “For horses, small square bales should have between a 13 to 17 percent moisture content,” says Mike Rankin, a crop and soils agent with the University of Wisconsin. “This insures the hay won’t support mold growth.” Some farmers are adding preservatives to prevent mold and bacteria. “Propionic acid alone or in some combination with another organic acid such as acetic acid are the most common hay preservatives,” says Rankin. “An organic acid, it works by inhibiting growth of aerobic microbes within the hay, reducing microbial respiration, accumulation of heat, dry matter loss and reductions in nutritive value.”

And yet, there is still some art to growing hay as well. No matter how advanced the science of growing, cutting and harvesting hay, a good crop still comes down to the right balance of rain and sunshine: “The problem has been, and likely always will be, the weather,” says Rankin.

Hay may not be the most glamorous of topics. “But,” says Hoffbeck, “there is a certain beauty in the commonplace. After the clover has been mowed and the hay harvested, the plant will grow again. There is a time after the mowing when there seems to be nothing there—but the roots are growing deep and the plant is still alive beneath the surface of the ground. When you can take good care of plants and animals you can take good care of people.” 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #450, March 2015. 




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