January 11, 2008

A Hay Knife Rings Out in the Winter Cold

One of the most important discoveries made by mankind was how to make hay. The discovery that dried grass and or alfalfa could be stored and used over time in locations away from field and farm made possible the establishment of villages, towns and cities. The invention of hay permitted man to shorten distances required to travel, extended the useful territory of livestock and allowed the development of communities and civilization. It is interesting to note that modern bales so common to our notion of hay are a recent invention coming into use only since the end of the World War II. It is also interesting to note that approximately 40% of all arable land was dedicated to the production of hay prior to the widespread introduction of tractors and combines. Prior to that time, the making, stacking and feeding of hay followed pretty much the same centuries old procedure and was one of the major enterprises of farming and ranching.

On my outfit, the “Quarter Circle K” we harvest just enough hay for our own needs and do not attempt to sell it. Given that our needs to bale and transport are nil, we don’t. We stack it like they used to do everywhere and like they still do in some parts of Wyoming. If you have ever driven around Jackson Hole or Wilson at the foot of the Teton Range, chances are that you have seen some of these old fashioned haystacks sitting out in the middle of the fields. Some of them reach a height of around 15 feet.

These haystacks are built either by using a Mormon derrick (see photo) introduced by 19th century Danish pioneers in Utah, or by a more humble method called the rope method. On the Quarter Circle K we use the rope method – a technique handed down through four generations. This is how it works. At 80% bloom, the alfalfa is mown and raked into windrows for drying. Drying is fast here in the desert – a matter of one or two days in the summer heat. We then shock it – meaning that we go along the windrows and fork them into individual piles or shocks. We may turn the shocks a time or two to ensure complete drying.

When the hay is ready for stacking, we pull the hay wagon through the fields with a tractor. The wagon has been outfitted with a 160’ kernmantle rope (the kind used in mountaineering and sailing). The two ends of the ropes are attached to the back of the wagon – about four or five feet apart and running the two parallel sections of rope along the bed of the wagon towards the front to form a large “U.” Excess rope is gathered and placed in a neat pile on the tongue of the wagon. The shocks are then picked up with a pitchfork and loaded onto the wagon covering the ropes. As the load is made, it is stomped down and compressed.

To unload the wagon, it is backed up to the spot where the haystack will be or already is. It is then unhooked from the tractor and the wheels are blocked to prevent any movement. The tractor is driven around to the opposite side of the haystack and backed up into position. The rope end, forming a bite that was piled at the front of the wagon in then thrown over to the tractor and attached to the draw bar. The rope now encircles the hay and is ready to be pulled out of the wagon. The tractor driver then moves forward pulling the rope and the hay into position on the stack. If done correctly, there is little spillage and the hay goes into position quite nicely and quickly. It is possible to build as high a stack as you have rope for following this method. In the old days, a team of horses was used to pull the hay off the wagon instead of a tractor. The hay will naturally compress and cure in the stack forming a mass that can only be fed out to livestock once it is sawn apart. We use a six foot logging saw for the rough cuts and a traditional hay knife for the smaller cuts.

So finally we get to the introduction of the following poem. In the middle of winter when it is very cold and the metal of the hay knife is contracted due to the low temperature, it rings like a bell as you cut through the hay. This musical performance by a tool known to man for centuries but now largely forgotten in our overly mechanized and silicon world is a wonderful note that brightens an otherwise cold and wintry day.

A Hay Knife Rings Out in the Winter Cold
by Paul Kern

Making hay the old fashioned way,
Is an art long lost and replaced today,
By bales square, rectangular and round,
Tied together, compressed and bound.

When you stack hay like it used to be,
In the old way handed down to me,
Pile it high in a square fence as you stack,
It’ll compress as it dries - there’s the knack.

Remove the fence, there’s a whole lot there,
About eight feet high and eight feet square.
Makes a bale bigger than you’ve ever seen,
With good straight walls of faded green.

Then cover your stack with a sturdy tarp,
Pull out your hay knife and make it sharp.
Those old knives with wood handles offset,
Will cut into a stack just as slick as you get.

When the cold settles in and freezes hard,
And you’re out there throwin’ hay old pard’ -
Thrust into the stack to hear the steel sing,
As the knife glides through, it’ll softly ring.

It only happens when the snow is deep,
When critters leave tracks along as they creep,
Deep in the winter before spring takes a hold,
A hay knife rings out in the winter cold.

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  1. Nice blog.
    Great thoughts of hay.
    I like this blog.
    Thanks for great sharing.


  2. Just purchased an old hay knife today. Granted, I had no idea what it was at the time (besides cool looking!). After discovering what this awesome work of old art was I found the link to your site. Love the poem - now I'm just waiting for snow... ;o)