Originally published July/August 2012
Nothing so smells like summer more than a hayfield freshly mown. Even during winter when you break into those little bundles of summer sunshine, the scent will take you back — and the nutrition will help your flocks and herds thrive. Making hay is something that is universally anticipated by folks living on the land, but for many small holders, the expense of collecting and maintaining all the power equipment used in the modern hay meadow is just too much. Your options include buying hay, having a custom hay crew hay your place on shares, or making what you need, slowly but surely, by hand. And if you live in town and have just a few rabbits to feed, handmade hay is the only way to go.
As much as I thoroughly enjoy the sounds and smells associated with using diesel-powered equipment and modern self-tying large round balers, I’ve always wondered whether I could pass muster with my ancestors and make sufficient hay to feed a small sheep flock through the winter using only a scythe, primitive hand-made hay rake, pitchfork and wagon. Plus, I am no fan of paying for a gym membership and running on a treadmill for any reason, so I figured I could get healthful quantities of recreation and physical activity if I put my hand haymaking scheme to the test.
Making the cut: types of scythes
Since I already owned a lightweight Austrian scythe with a snath custom-made to my 6-foot, 4-inch frame, and since we already had a few old three-tine pitchforks, an antique wooden hay rake and assorted small wagons cluttering up the barn, most of what I needed was already in hand, so I was able to spring into action within a day of hatching the plan.
There are at least a couple of different types of scythes out there, and I’ve used both for cutting weeds and mowing slopes. The first scythe I ever owned was beautiful, and so lightweight that I concluded it was a decorative replica of the real thing — I sold it for a few bucks to a “junk” collector. It turns out it was actually a very old Austrian-style scythe, and I wish I’d had the sense to keep it those 40 or so years ago. At the time, I incorrectly reached the conclusion that the heavy-snathed, heavy-bladed American-style scythe was the real deal — it was, after all, heavy duty. It also was heavy — and I was young, dumb and strong.
The American scythe is a formidable tool. This scythe is generally constructed of harder, thicker steel, and you really want to use a grindstone to whet it. The American-style snath is usually round in cross section and features adjustable handles that help you get the right fit. The combination weighs about 7 pounds assembled. You get plenty of momentum to motor through thick growth, and there is nothing wrong with the American scythe, but once I learned about and tried the Austrian scythe, my old American just collected cobwebs and corrosion — and got sold to another junk dealer.
In a nutshell, the Austrian scythe is finesse where the American scythe is brute strength. The Austrian has a pronounced crescent shape as opposed to the American’s arched shape, and it is made with softer, thinner steel — relying on its specific three-dimensional shape for strength. To keep the Austrian scythe sharp, peen the cutting edge and dress with a curved whetstone. The peening draws out an incredibly thin and sharp edge, while the whetstone keeps the edge true as a day in the field progresses. The Austrian scythe weighs little more than half a comparable American style.
Swinging any scythe effectively will take some practice — instruction is even better. Take a look at the videos posted at Scythe Supply and read the pertinent sections of David Tresemer’s The Scythe Book.
Bringing in the sheaves
Once you have your cutter in hand, procure a lightweight and relatively wide hay rake — believe it or not, they are still available online and at some specialty brick and mortar locations.
If your only raking experiences involve gathering up the wet clumped grass your dad’s 1960s vintage power mower belched out, raking leaves in the yard, or dethatching the lawn, fear not. Raking hay with a lightweight wooden hay rake is heaven by comparison, and certainly easy and satisfying work.
In addition to the rake, a pitchfork (not a manure fork, not a garden fork, not a potato fork), which is designed for hay or straw, is a must. These forks can be made entirely of wood or, more likely these days, will be made with fine steel tines (usually three or four) attached to a wooden handle. Longer handles are better than shorter handles in general, and if your fork’s tines aren’t quite sharp, feel free to make them that way. A proper pitchfork will make loading hay onto your wagon and into the barn or stack an absolute joy.
Finally, you will need something with which to bring in your hay. We use an old 4-wheel garden wagon to which I’ve attached some vertical staves that facilitate the stacking of hay to about 8 feet in height. We pull the wagon with a utility vehicle or garden tractor, but you could use a pickup truck for this task as well — and some folks just rake their hay onto a large, lightweight tarp or piece of burlap and drag the load to where it’s needed. You also could skip the hauling altogether and make small haystacks within a couple of rakes’ reach. If you choose this approach, you might cover their tops with tarps to avoid wasting more of the hard work than necessary.
Making hay by hand
Once you have the tools in hand, you are ready to go, assuming your hay meadow is ready for harvest. I generally try to make the first cutting just as the grasses are sending up their flower stalks or the clover is beginning to flower — depends on the dominant species and which meadow it is, in our case. Contrary to ideal cutting conditions for mechanical haymaking, the best time for cutting with a scythe is as the sun is rising. Dew-damp forage is more succulent and much easier to slice with a scythe than later in the day.
My approach to mowing is to cut as much as I can in about an hour and leave the swaths to dry for a day or two (Kansas summers tend to be dry and sunny). When the humidity is high, I will come back later in the day to fluff and turn the swaths with the hay rake so they will dry evenly. Normally, before the dew drops on the second evening after cutting, I will be able to rake the swaths into heaps and load the wagon. If you have a partner in haymaking crime, you can fork the swaths directly onto the wagon if they are thick enough. When I have a partner, I usually rake two swaths together, and one of us forks while the other drives.
We’re lucky enough to have a large hay barn with sufficient floor space to store all of the bales we need plus a several-ton stack of handmade hay. Unloading the wagon is as easy as backing it into the barn and forking the load into a growing pile. Once you get the routine started, assuming the weather cooperates, you can mow in the morning, rake yesterday’s cutting in the evening and haul it to your stack in the barn. After a couple of weeks of this, you’ll have several thousand pounds of provender.
How does it feed?
I’m often asked about the quality of handmade hay compared with machine-made. Since I’ve never tested the protein levels on the handmade hay, I can’t offer any scientific data. All I know is that our animals relish the stuff. The sheep will refuse their large round bales of prairie hay as soon as the stack of handmade hay is uncovered. I’m sure it has something to do with the yellow sweet clover that grows rank in some of our hay ground, as well as the fact that it generally spends less time in the elements either drying or waiting to be hauled to the barn than the bales. In any event, even if you have a dozen ewes or a family cow to overwinter, you can make most, if not all, of the hay you need by whittling away at it over a month’s time. And you can get yourself back in trim, just in time for summer.
Hank Will goes through almost 20 tons of hay per winter, tending his sheep, cattle and pigs.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Joanne, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor-at-large at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines.