Feeding rabbits is a hot topic among enthusiasts, but the one thing most rabbit-rearing folks agree on is that the loppers should have ad-lib access to hay. Some say Timothy hay is best, others say plain old mixed-grass hay is the only way to go, and still others say to mix in a little alfalfa or other leguminous hay to boot. Either way, between the eating and the pulling of hay from the feeders for bedding, at the end of the year, you could be looking at up to 100 pounds of hay per rabbit (enthusiasts heatedly disagree on just how much hay an individual rabbit will need).
While many folks rush off to the pet store to source miniature hay bales for big bucks, others source it more reasonably in 70-pound bales right from the farm. Most seem not to realize that making hay the old-fashioned way can reduce their hay bill to nil — and maybe even their waistline by several inches. You don’t need more than a bit of backyard to make it happen.
For folks with only one or two rabbits to feed, all the hay you need could be produced by planting a mixture of oats, clover and Timothy grass in your garden. When the growth is rank and lush, you simply cut it with a machete, nonpowered weed whacker, sickle, or even a scythe if you happen to have one. Let the vegetation dry in the sun for a couple of days (until grass stems will break when you fold them in half, and no dampness or lush leaves remain), rake it up, and pack it in paper bags, or compress it in a cardboard box and tie with string to make small bales. A single cutting from a 500-square-foot patch (25 feet by 20 feet) could realistically supply up to 150 pounds of high-quality hay. If your growing season supports it, you might get two or three cuttings from that patch and net something more like 250 pounds. All it will cost you is a bit of seed and a few hours of exercise.
Let’s just say you have sufficient hankering for hay that something in the realm of a ton is needed to see your rabbits through the year. Is there an easy way to scale up production with minimal investment in machinery? The answer is yes, although I was motivated to prove it to myself, feed some sheep — not rabbits — and get into shape.
Even though I love the sounds and smells associated with making hay 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 flock of sheep through the winter months using a scythe, primitive hand hay rake, pitchfork and wagon. Plus, I am no fan of running on a treadmill for fun or exercise, so I figured I could get healthful quantities of workout and recreation if I put this hand-haymaking scheme to the test.
Since I already owned an Austrian-style scythe, complete with a snath custom-fit to my 6-foot-4-inch frame (about $250), and since we had a few old pitchforks (free to me) and wagons cluttering up the barn, I decided to hit the hay meadow hard within a day of hatching the plan. The growth was a lush mix of cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, sweet clover and black medic. My former manual-mowing experiences were limited to periodically whacking weeds in places where I couldn’t maneuver the tractor and shredder, so I checked out some online videos to get a feel for the proper scythe swing. It took about an hour to find my rhythm and to learn when to give the blade a lick with the whetstone. The scythe easily sliced through the vegetation right at ground level and left it in loose windrows about 5-feet wide, where it cured undisturbed for two days in the hot Kansas sun.
I quit cutting that first day a much more efficient mower than when I started, and I managed to knock down about a quarter of an acre in the process. Whew, I was pooped — but not as pooped as a couple days later when I went to gather up the windrows using a pitchfork.
It took much less time to fork together the loose hay, load it on the wagon, and haul it to the barn — where I stacked it in the corner of the old feeding floor — than it did to mow. One advantage of stacking loose hay under cover is that you don’t have to form the structure so it will shed rain, and since it also is out of the sun, you will lose much less hay to weathering than when stacked outdoors.
As efficient as the fork is for loading and stacking, the rake is really necessary for gathering. While pondering the blisters on my hands from awkwardly pulling the hay fork as a vertical rake of sorts, I realized the true value of those old wooden hay rakes that I’d seen in photographs.
In Osage County, Kansas, vintage wooden hay rakes sell for pretty good money in the antique stores, so I decided to have a go at making one myself. I took a look at some rakes online and even studied some “plans” in a couple of woodworking books, then just decided to do like my German and Lapp ancestors would have done when they hit the Dakota territory in the late 1800s — make do with what I had around.
With muscles still aching from mowing and loading, I harvested a hackberry sapling from a hedgerow and two small logs — one hackberry and one black walnut — from a tree snag created during a pond-dam repair project. About three hours worth of labor later (spread out over the course of two weekends), I had become sufficiently reacquainted with my froe, splitting maul, chisels and hand drill that I had a serviceable, if not lovely, hay rake ready to press into service — and press I did.
To date, I’ve used the homemade hay rake to help gather about six tons of hay that I’ve cut by hand over two seasons. I can report that the rake works beautifully (see A Wooden Hay Rake You Can Make: Making Hay the Old Fashioned Way).
The task seemed daunting at first, but I quickly got into a mow-in-the-morning-before-work and rake-and-stack-in-the-evening-after-chores routine that was every bit as effective as any gym membership I’ve ever had. The added value came during two winters when we forked that stored summer sunshine to our ewes to enjoy right up to lambing time.
The average rabbit enthusiast might not need a literal ton of hay, but that needed hay can easily be obtained for free with a little effort and ingenuity.
My first step was to head into the small copse of woods in the center of the farm to harvest a hackberry sapling of sufficient length and dimension to shape into the handle. I cut and limbed the sapling with a machete. I next cut a hackberry log about 30 inches long and 6 inches in diameter from a snag left by the dozers when they repaired one of the pond dams on my farm (my chainsaw came in handy for this work). I carried these pieces along with a 20-inch-long, 8-inch-diameter black walnut log, sourced from the same snag, back to my improvised woodworking shop in the barn and went to work.
To begin shaping the handle, I shaved the bark from the hackberry sapling using a drawknife. Once the sapling was free of bark, I shaved it down until it felt good in my hands. At the end where the handle would connect to the rake’s head, I shaved the sapling into a tenon that was roughly 1 1/2 inches by 1 inch in cross section — and I set the handle aside to dry out for a week or so.
While the handle was drying, I went to work with the splitting maul and antique forged froe to rive out a hackberry billet about 30 inches long by 1 1/2 inches thick by 2 1/2 inches wide for the rake’s head. I used the drawknife and a flat-soled spokeshave to shape the head and then trimmed the ends with a handsaw.
Next I traced the handle’s tenon cross section onto the center of the head and, using a hand drill and chisels, cut a slightly tapered mortise that gripped the tenon snugly with just a few whacks from the mallet. I then located positions for seven rake teeth and bored 1/2-inch holes through the rake head, top to bottom. I took care to eyeball the drill so that the holes were more or less perpendicular to the bottom of the rake’s head.
To make the rake’s teeth, I used the splitting maul and froe to rive out black walnut billets that were about 5/8-inch-square in cross section and 20 inches long. These I rounded to slightly more than 1/2-inch diameter with the drawknife and spokeshave, and then I cut them to length. I got about three teeth from each billet. I next sized the teeth using my pocketknife so they would fit tightly into the holes I’d bored in the head earlier.
Once sized, I whittled a crude, dull point on the rake teeth and drove them home with a hardwood mallet. Although the rake was fully assembled at this point, and I was tempted to try it out, every wooden hay rake I have seen uses some means to brace the handle and head in a triangular fashion. I’ve seen iron strapping, wire, steam-bent wood, and sawed braces on antique rakes. I decided for this first and somewhat primitive attempt, I would use looped wire twisted taut like the diagonal on a fence brace to do the trick. It’s not pretty, but it works great.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.
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