It wasn’t too long ago that farmers had nothing more than a scythe and their strong backs to cut and bale hay. Actually the “bales” were more like tall piles of grass that remained in the field until needed. Today we are aided by the advent of tractors and hay balers that wrap the grass into tight rolls that will feed livestock when winter arrives.
There are four main components to baling hay, including mowing, teddering (scattering), raking and baling, the latter of which creates the round or square bales you’ll often see in roadside fields. For this article, we’re going to discuss the more common method that is round baling. While the squares are primarily for horses, the rolls are sought out by the more prevalent cattle farmers to feed during the months when grass has gone dormant.
The mowing process is typically the longest because you’re going one strip at a time, thus making more passes around the field. Let’s say you’re operating a nine-foot mower. There will be nine rotors holding two blades each that move at several thousand revolutions per minute. Unlike an ordinary lawn mower or bush hog, it cuts the grass at the stalk and lays it down rather than mulching it into hundred of pieces. You’ll always cut a hay field clockwise so the tractor tires are not running down the uncut grass whereas the blades may not be able to get underneath.
One of the most important aspects about mowing is having a smooth field to cut. The smoother, the faster the process. The extra work involved in re-disking, re-seeding and cultipacking is worth it when you’re able to cruise along at 10 miles per hour rather getting bucked around at five.
Teddering, or scattering hay, is the second fastest in the process of baling hay. The tedder will typically reach two or more rows of mowed hay, taking about half the time. Teddering is necessary to speed up the drying process of the mowed hay. Once it’s separated, the sun and wind will wick away the remaining moisture that you never want to have inside a bale - moisture causes mold. Since you cut clockwise, tedder counterclockwise. Going against the grain allows this implement to lift up and evenly scatter the hay.
Easily the fastest part of the process, the rake can expand out over three rows of cut hay. Plus, no matter if you’re field is flat or an a hillside, you can move a little faster. The rake is used to create the windrows that the baler will then pick up to make rolls.
It is user preference and what makes you most comfortable, but I like to start by making the first windrow down the middle of the field and working my way out. When you do it this way, the turns get wider and easier with each pass. Plus, by working your way out you don’t trap yourself in the middle and have to drive across windrows, which drags hay out of reach of the baler. Along with the mower - not missing any strips - the raking process is really what makes a hay field look good once it’s baled.
Now to the final step. Early balers, especially those pulled by open cab tractors, were harder to handle than the modern machines. Since you don’t want to start baling until early afternoon when the dew has evaporated, this means there is going to be a lot of hay dust in the air at all times. Until about a decade ago, you didn’t see that many cabbed tractors equipped with air conditioning.
Today, not only are tractors more comfortable, but baler technology has made the job easy. A computer system that connects to the tractor will tell you exactly how much hay is in the baler, how even the bale is going to be and when you need to stop so it can automatically wrap the role. Then, with the flick of a lever, you’ll kick it out into the field and keep on going. On a hillside you may have to cut the power turn over (PTO) off and take the bale off the hill to eject it. But in a flat field you can simply kick it out and keep going.
There aren’t many finer things to look at than a baled hay field, the neatly wrapped roles sitting upon the short green grass. You’ll want to remove the roles from the field within a few days to avoid the sickly looking brown spots that the bales will make in the grass. These days, good hay like orchard grass and millet is going for about $40 per 4x6 roll. If you’re strapped for time or cash to get started, you can always allow a cattle farmer to come in and do it for you. Then, you’ll never have to worry about anything except collecting a check worth 25 percent of the rolls he produces.