Making Hay

Haymaking. What images does that word conjure up for you? Sunny summer days, a rural idyll, families working together in the field, long breaks for cider, picnics amidst the hay bales, laughter, the satisfaction of bringing in the harvest?

If you’re a smallholder you take a slightly different view. It’s hell. Why? Because something always goes wrong and it’s never something you can predict or control. For a start, there’s the weather. You need four consecutive dry days in June to make hay. One to cut the grass, two to turn and dry the cut grass, and one to bale and stack. And if you live in the Northern Temperate region where you can have four seasons in one day, that is not easy. Yes, you will often get four consecutive dry days in June but the problem is knowing in advance when they will occur. If you cut and your promised dry spell turns to rain you risk losing your crop. The cut grass sits on the field deteriorating, losing its food value and, if the rain doesn’t stop, it turns to compost.

Which, for the smallholder, can be a disaster. That’s the winter food for the animals. Lose that and you have to buy in hay, which for someone on a tight budget can mean the difference between breaking even and going under.

Next comes the machinery. Mowers, tedders and balers: all these machines are used only once a year and like any old machine with a year’s gap between use – they don’t like it. And, being contrary, they’ll make sure they break down in a different way to the way they did last year. Buy in a selection of spare parts and you’ll find the one that breaks isn’t one you’d prepared for. That’s if you can find a spare part – the average smallholder runs tractors and equipment 30-60 years old.

So, deep down, you know you really need five or even six dry days. Four to do the work and two to make repairs and tear your hair out. Even if things go right, you become conditioned to expect the worst. It’s only going right because something really, really awful is being saved up for later.

Then there’s the baling. I am in awe of the person who invented the baler. It picks the hay off the ground with tines on a revolving drum, two arms then grab the hay and pull it into a compacting chamber where two strings are tied around each bale. It then ties a knot in the string, cuts the string and pushes the bale out the back. All this is powered and controlled by one rotating shaft driven from the tractor. Everything mechanical, not one piece of electronics anywhere.

How can a machine like that not be temperamental? The strings snap, or don’t get cut, or one string’s tight and the other loose – producing banana shaped bales. And the baler has to stop and all the mis-baled hay has to be collected up by hand and put back in a row for re-baling. I’ve often wondered if smallholders could make a feature of this and advertise ‘twice-baled hay’ as a premium product. We don’t just bale our hay once, we bale it twice for extra goodness.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf 

Recently released from Book View Press: French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!

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