It was hot sticky dirty work. In rural areas it was also one of the few ways teenagers could earn spending money in the summer. Those who have put up hay in the heat know what I’m talking about. Baling hay was a job meant for the hottest part of the day.
Cutting, raking or baling hay early in the morning wasn’t practical. Heavy dew usually blanketed the field. Dew often fell in evening when temperatures cooled. That left the hot part of the day.
It wasn’t just the heat. Chaff would stick to your sweaty skin and much of the dust would go down your throat or up your nose. Eyes would often weep and occasionally develop a case of pink-eye. Tossing 55-pound bales into a second story barn door wore on the shoulders.
Sometimes poison ivy or briars were mixed into bales. I remember my wife telling about baling one field and finding half a copperhead in several bales. She always wondered how many didn’t get cut in half.
There were tricks to making the process run smoothly. Raking the forage into even windrows was important as was travelling at a proper speed. If hay wasn’t dry enough the bales were brutally heavy. That wasn’t the worst part. They could mold, sometimes causing enough heat to burn down a barn.
As with any job, speeding up the process is usually better, but getting greedy leads to problems. Making the rows of dried hay too large or moving through them too fast meant breaking shear pins or worse. That slowed things down. Turning on steep ground with a tractor, baler and wagon tethered together could be challenging too. Thinking ahead is critical.
Once the bales were on the wagon they had to be secured if hauled any distance. Quick and secure stacking keeps the crew from loading it twice. Falling off a truckload of hay isn’t much fun either.
Suffice to say, putting up hay is hard work. One would think the pay would be good. Think again. Back in the 70s and 80s, slinging several hundred bales in a day would net about two dollars an hour.
If rain was in the forecast, work never stopped. There were no breaks. Sometimes if you had your work done you would help the neighbors get their hay in before the rain.
I remember helping my wife’s grandfather in the hayfield. He’d offer me two dollars an hour like the rest of his crew. I never took his money. I told him I’d love to help and would work for free, but I didn’t work for two dollars an hour. He never understood my logic.
Still the same, I really enjoyed all the times I handled hay. I still love the look and smell of a freshly mowed meadow. It was so satisfying to see such a difference in a field and barn.
A lot has changed. Production has transitioned to large round bales. Some farmers even use the huge square bales and all the loading is accomplished with machinery. They even make plastic bonnets, so hay need not be placed in barns.
It’s hard to find small square bales anymore. I remember my father-in-law charging a dollar a bale back in the 80s. I bought some recently for twelve dollars each. He’d turn over in his grave, or maybe he’d smile.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).