Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Posted by Nick  | 17 Feb 2015  | 11 comments

Some of you may not know this simple fact (e.g. city-slickers): Hay is livestock fodder for over winter (or in a drought) when there isn’t enough pasture to go around. This may seem like common knowledge, but you’d be surprised. Whilst assuming this in the back of my mind, I realised I knew nothing at all about haymaking.

Warning: The following material contains a lot of hay. Sufferers of hay-fever beware.

I recently learnt that it’s usual for farmers to close up a number of paddocks over summer to let the grass go to seed. The seed heads in the grass contain abundant nutrients, distinguishing hay from plain old straw. It’s then cut, turned, and baled – all with the use of a tractor and three separate pieces of perplexing machinery, respectively, in tow.

Two of our paddocks were “shut up” for hay for a couple months, and for the past week the farmer who leases our land has been popping out every day to process it. Part of the lease arrangement was that we’d get to keep the majority of the bales but we hope to sell quite a few of them.

In the area, where hay is plentiful, a bale goes for around five bucks. Back up in Auckland these are usually twice the price, and when they’re scarce potentially triple. Perhaps we’ll pay the Auckland pony clubs a wee visit in a transport truck over winter… Hay-ho!

Here’s our farmer doing the first part of the process, cutting:

The attachment being used is basically a giant lawn mower except with two big spinning blades instead of just one.

Afterwards, it looks lovely all in rows.

And here’s the farmer the next day, turning the hay with a different attachment, which helps to aerate it and dry it out:

These instruments of farming confound me. They appear at once simple and puzzling, yet their design is so effective that there has been few improvements in almost a hundred years. When I look at something like this, and how well it does the job it was intended for, I can’t help but be awed by the idea of ancient farmers who, for thousands of years, achieved the same result with little more than hand tools and horse-drawn cart.

Lastly, before baling, he turns the mowed hay again and this time combs it into tidy rows:

Time to bring out the hungry baler!

This thing eats people. Seriously. A local told us the horrifying story of a recent baler “mishap” in which one unlucky fellow got his shirt snagged on the spinning PTO driveshaft and was sucked through, only to be spat out in pieces. Needless to say, he did not survive. Right around Christmas, too. Not cool, baler. Not cool. I will be giving this bastard a wide berth.

We actually bought this old machine from the previous owner of our farm. We figured we’d be needing it and we might as well save ourselves the trouble of sourcing one elsewhere and dealing with the transport. It’s pretty beat up and needs some spare parts, but apparently it does the trick. It seems the thing to do when you have missing parts is to substitute them with the likes of a soda can, such as in this tractor hub cap. Whatever works, fellas…

There were a few hiccups before they got it going. Namely threading the baling twine correctly and plopping dollops of grease here and there. The whole thing, we thought, seemed like a giant sewing machine. I suppose it’s more like a parcelling machine, you might say, since it compacts hay into neat cuboids and strings them up with twine. The farmer had his brother with him to help out. As you can see by their attire, these are real country gentlemen.

We had no idea what they were actually doing. We’d catch a word here and there, but I think we’d better study this thing’s manual. In depth.

“Ah, there’s your problem. The jig-hickey isn’t wound onto the watchama-bob, and your doodad’s gone all giddy.”

Once it got going it was entertaining to watch our very first hay bales being tidily pooped out the bum-end of this contraption. I was eager to lift one to see what kind of weight I’d be having to heave a few hundred times. I’d say each weighed about twenty kilograms.

In preparation I’d lined the barn with some junk wood to keep the bales off the floor. The last thing you want is moisture wicking up from the ground and rotting them all. Apparently I’d put them in the wrong direction, however, because when I came back later I’d found that someone had repositioned them to run short-ways. Not sure why. I think it perhaps has something to do with how the bales would be stacked.

On the first day of baling a bunch of neighbours turned up to help. This was surprising to us city-folk. Apparently that’s just how things are done. Baling is so weather-dependent that you can’t risk your bales getting wet, so it’s all hands on deck if there are ominous clouds looming. Even in good weather it seems that help from across the road is expected. It is a momentous task, after all, and many hands make light work. So long as there’s a beer for everyone at the end, we were told, they were happy to assist.

I tried my best to pull my own weight, especially since they were going to be our bales, but I felt like I was just getting in the way of the pros. Like I was butting into the middle of a very efficient assembly line. They had done this a hundred times since youth, and they had a rhythm and process that I felt my cumbersome ineptitude only hindered.

When the second paddock was baled a couple days later, I was more confident in my hay-hauling abilities. It was quite fun, actually, jumping on and off the trailer, heaving the bales aboard in a joint effort to get them stacked in the barn. Bloody hot work in the middle of a summer day. Char was free to help with a couple of loads over her lunch break, too. She took to it with greater knack than I. Farming’s in her genes.

The first paddock filled almost half of our barn. The bale count was two-hundred-thirteen. The lease farmer took a trailer-load with him, and we sold fifty to our neighbour.

The second paddock gave us another two-hundred-eighty-one, putting our tally close to five-hundred.

Even our kitty, Mica, came to investigate the new jungle-gym. Beware, nesting swallows.

Amusingly, Mica was leaping across rafters when she suddenly miscalculated. Next moment there’s this little kitten hanging on for dear life by her front paws. I lunged out to save her, but I wasn’t fast enough. She fell to the floor of the barn from four metres up, hitting a piece of timber with a thud on the way down. Half-laughing and half-concerned, we rushed to peer over the edge. She looked up, confused. We jumped down and inspected her for injury. Needless to say, she’s a cat. Nine lives. A few minutes later she was happily shitting in the paddock and bounding through the long grass.

Next summer we’ll probably have to do all this ourselves; cutting, turning, baling, and stacking. We have a few friends in mind to come help us with, what will undoubtedly be, a sluggish and laborious effort. You know who you are.

11 comments Leave a comment

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This looks like an awesome and nerve-wracking project. I can imagine that if it rained it’d be extremely depressing, because you’d still have to clean the whole field up… Or I suppose the cows could be brought in?

Also, wouldn’t the direction of the logs as pictured have made it easier to slide in the bales (as if on rails), or is the picture how you had it before they rotated them?


Cows could clean up, but you’re right, it would be extremely depressing. At five bucks a bale, it’s potentially thousands of dollars gone (though you could turn it to silage) and a lot of labour wasted.

Yeah, the picture is before they rotated the wood. I had the same logic as you, but obviously their years of experience said otherwise.

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Ah right, short-ways, duh. Yeah I believe you have them the right way around, haha. Probably a case of ‘we’ve always done it this way, so there!’


I think I’d rather err on the side of admitting my own ignorance, but you could be right.

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You know who you are? My, that, what…who on earth?!


Perhaps we can bait you with bacon-addled coma burgers?

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I think someone’s been pulling your leg you rookie hay baler… Please say it’s so! It’s just too horrifying to think someone actually got completely shredded in one of those! And that you’re going to be using such a contraption with that potential!


Trust a mother to focus on that aspect of the post 😛 And yes, the guy telling the story was very sombre about it. Tractor overturns and PTO accidents are the leading cause of death in agriculture, which has one of the highest occupation fatality rates 🙂

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Excellent news! Thanks for that!! And yeah your mumma still worries about her boy – always will 🙂

George Shears
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This post evokes warm memories from my haying days long ago. Back in that era, however, the power was provided by four-legged horses, instead of the modern mechanical kind. The mowing was accomplished by the farmer sitting on a two-wheeled machine with the mowing blade extended to one side, with a team of horses drawing it. The resulting rows of mowed grass looked remarkably like the ones in your photos, with occasional “horse apples” interspersed between them.

After an initial short drying period, the farmer hitched up a second piece of two-wheeled equipment–a mechanical hay rake. As the horses pulled this over the mowed rows, the farmer would elevate the rake with a lever every 20 -30 feet or so. By repeating this process with adjacent rows, the hay was raked into windrows–again appearing much like the ones in your photos.

The next stage entailed pure manual labor and often involved everyone in the family, as well as neighbors. It consisted of using pitch forks to collect the raked hay into haycocks. The haying operation was completed by laboriously pitching these cocks onto a hay wagon, pulled again by a team of horses. When it was fully loaded, the horses pulled it, typically, to a barn where the hay was again laboriously pitched up into a “hay mow” in the top part of the barn.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this was one of the ways that everyone in farming families built up very strong muscles. Since we raised mainly chickens when I was growing up, my participation in this form of hay-making was fairly limited. For this reason, perhaps, my memories of it are mainly happy ones. Describing them activates the absolutely delightful engrams of new-mown hay, as well as equally savory ones of playing with other kids in hay mows or hay stacks. Ah, such were the days!

I’m impressed with how the culture of neighborliness that you describe in modern New Zealand hay-making is essentially identical to what I remember from my childhood in northern Minnesota, USA. Making hay while the sun shone was the order of the day then as it is now on your farm, and everyone pitched in (literally) to make it a success.

Thanks so much, Nick and Char, for this very charming post.


Thanks so much for sharing this account of your hay-making days, George! What a delight it is to hear how you experienced first-hand the “ways of old”. I guess it’s only been sixty years or so that tractor machinery has been mainstream – like any labour-saving technology we take it for granted and treat it like it’s been around forever. I cannot begin to fathom how much effort would be required for such an undertaking. Just the thought of it knackers me!

It’s fascinating to read unfamiliar hay-making terminology, such as “haycocks”, “haymows” and “windrows” (which was the word I was looking for in one of my sentences, but instead just used “row”).

It’s a pleasure to have documented something that gives you a sense of nostalgia and harkens back to “the good old days”. Thanks again for sharing, Char will love to read this 🙂

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