Making Hay

I met him in a cowboy bar in Lima, Ohio.  I needed a dance partner for the two-steps and waltzes.  The hostess got me Dale.  He was newly divorced and still smarting, didn’t want anything to do with women–guaranteed–but he also needed a dance partner.  I was safe.  We were married the next year.

He was a trackman on the railroad.  I was the director of a pediatric emergency department.  That gave us an interesting socioeconomic dichotomy.  I didn’t care; he was my savage gamekeeper, and I his Lady Chatterley.  ‘Nuff said.

One night a colleague at work said to me, “Don’t drive down Slabtown Road.  There’s a horse farm for sale there.  If you go down there, you’ll surely buy it so don’t go down there.

I went down there the next day.  I bought it.

When I was shit-poor, playing the banjo on the streets in Boston to make rent money, throwing rent parties when it didn’t pan out, I promised myself three things if I ever got rich:

I would have nice underwear.

I would learn to fly.

I would have a horse.

It was a 40 acre farm with two barns and a brick ranch house.  There were 32 stalls with 32 horses in them.  13 of the stalls were filled with the outgoing owner’s own horses, which would come with the deal; the other stalls were boarders.  So instead of “a” horse, I suddenly had thirteen!

It was a “turn-key operation.”  That meant the owners wanted out, Right Now, and wanted rid of the place and everything on it.  Suited me fine.

There was a wonderful 4 wheel drive John Deere tractor with a backhoe, front end loader, snow blade, brush cutter, power take off (PTO), PTO powered John Deere hay baler, a powered manure spreader (very important when you have 32 horses!), a 1949 Allis Chalmers tractor, hay mower, a couple of wheel-powered hay rakes, and everything else you’d need to manage and bale five cuttings a year of 25 acres of prime alfalfa.

That was the only time in my life I’ve ever watched TV.  If you’re going to make hay in Ohio, you’d better be adept at gauging the weather patterns from the Pacific Northwest to the Upper Midwest, during haying time.  That’s the way the jet stream flows in summer, and that’s the path the storms take.  It takes about three days for a storm system to travel from Seattle to Lima.  Like it says, you have to make hay when the sun shines!

Timing is critical when making hay.  First off, you have to know when to cut it.  The alfalfa plant is highest in protein–up to 28%–right before it blooms.  If you cut it right then, you will have soft, fragrant green hay that is loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals, and there is little chance for toxic molds to settle in.  If you miss this tiny window of time–only a few days–what you’ll have is coarse, tough, not-very-nutritious hay, good for cows at $1 a bale but not suitable for horse feed at $5 a pop.

Now, the absolute minimum time frame for making a crop of hay is three sunny days: day one to cut, day two to turn it over and dry it on the other side, and day three to bale and put it away in the haymow.

So the art of it all was to pinpoint the exact three-day window between rain storms, coordinated with the ideal growth stage of the alfalfa.  It was exciting.  Heart-pounding.

To make it all more interesting, those three-day windows always seemed to occur when the temperature was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The upshot of the torrid temperatures was that we could never manage to bribe the local high school boys who lolled around during summer break doing nothing but getting into trouble–we could never get them to help us put up hay, even for good money.  So it fell out that Dale and I did all of the cutting and raking ourselves.

He would go out first, as soon as the dew dried off the hay.  That was another obstacle–you can’t just get up with the birds and expect to go cut hay.  If you do anything to hay while it’s wet, it will do something bad to you, like turn directly into mold. And worse, if you put wet hay in your haymow, it creates so much heat in the process of fermentation that many a good barn has burned down due to hay fires, and many a good animal lost!  So you had to pat your foot and drink cup after cup of coffee until the sun had dried the standing hay.

As soon as the sun was full on, beating down like brimstone, Dale would jump on the John Deere with the mower on, and cut hay for dear life.  If we were lucky, it was so damn hot that I could give him an hour’s head start and follow right after him with the old Allis Chalmers, with a wheel-drive rake on the back.  The sun was so hot, the hay dried enough to turn over in just an hour!  So we’d get the whole 25 acres cut and turned over in a day.  But most of the time it was a two-day process before we were set to bale.  Cut the first day, and the second day I’d go out with one rake on the Chalmers and turn over the front field while he did the back field with the Deere.

Driving the Chalmers was an adventure in itself.  It had all kinds of convenient features, like a dead-man’s switch.  That’s a metal button on the floor that you have to keep your foot on at all times, otherwise it cuts the engine off.  Obviously, because it’s called a dead-man’s switch, if you died while driving tractor it would most likely cut off.  If you are five feet tall and have to drive the tractor half-standing, half hanging onto the steering wheel, it’s damned hard to keep your weight on that stupid switch.  Of course, if you fell off the tractor it would be handy to have it stop automatically, saving you from getting run over or having to run like hell to catch up with an escaped tractor.

The Allis had no brakes.

Therefore, I had to devise a strategy for what to do when I came to the corner of the field and had to make a turn.  Luckily the Allis tolerated letting the engine idle down real slow, since it only had two gears: fast, and faster.  But it would throttle down to a creeping crawl before it stalled.  That was good in another way: the starter was on the floor too, and required a good stomp to fire it up.  I must have looked like a monkey on a string hopping up and down trying to get that damn tractor started.

On the third morning, after the horses were fed and watered and the stalls mucked out, and after four or five more cups of coffee, Dale would hitch the baler to the Deere.  If we were lucky, and school was out, we’d have our two boys (his and mine) as slave labor.  When you live on a farm, there are certain realities of life, like barn chores and baling hay.  Let’s face it: none of us woke up in the morning shouting, “Yaaay!  Let’s go fry our ass, get good and sweaty and covered with itchy hay dust, and totally dehydrated because there isn’t time to stop to drink!  Yaaaay!”

Nope.  So it was on Baling Day that I drove the John Deere tractor with a baler on the PTO and a 14 foot flatbed wagon hitched behind, no automatic balers that shoot the bales into a tall stake wagon for us: we had the old-fashioned kind that plops the bales down in the field.  So Dale would horse the 60-to-70 pound bales up to the wagon, one of the boys would grab it from him, and the other boy would stack it on the wagon.  As the wagon filled up, it got harder and harder……but those boys could sometimes load that wagon five bales high.  Then we’d unhitch from the Deere and one of the boys would get the Allis, and haul the load to the barn.

Without the boys to help, it was just me driving tractor and Dale working the wagon like a madman with rabies.  I had to stop a lot to let him catch up on the stacking.  Sometimes I’d hop off the tractor and help stack, then we’d have another go at it till we were ready to put the bales in the barn.

If we hadn’t had a powered hay conveyer, I don’t know what we would have done.  This looked like a playground slide with a conveyer belt going up to the haymow.  We’d generally have the two kids (did I mention that they were ages 8 (mine) and 10 (his) when we started doing this?) up in the haymow stacking, and I’d be on the wagon heaving the bales down to Dale, who heaved them onto the conveyer.

And then we’d go out to the field and do it again, until it was done.  It was a race against the evening dew, or the coming rain, whichever came first.

Sometimes something exciting would happen: I always drove tractor with my head cocked over my left shoulder, one eye on the windrow and one ear on the baler, in case somebody got in some kind of trouble.

So when I heard shrieks coming from the direction of the wagon, I shut the whole works down and leaped out of the tractor seat.  (The dead-man’s switch on the Deere was conveniently located under the spring-loaded seat, so all you had to do was stand up and the tractor shut down.)

Son of a gun, if we hadn’t baled up a smallish rattlesnake; and before anyone noticed, it had been tossed up on the wagon, its head sticking out and snapping for all it was worth!  Dale whacked it with something or other, and threw that bale back into the field.  Reject!  We laughed over that for years.

After the last bale was put away in the mow, there was a mad rush for the Gatorade and the shower.  Then barn chores, which never wait till tomorrow.  And the blessed coolth of the evening.  Let the dew fall where it may; the hay is safe, and so are we, until time to bale again!

Postscript: although at the time my son thought he was being abused by being forced to do what all farm kids do, he now remembers those years as the best in his life.