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The Economy of Low-Cost Homestead Haymaking: The Whole Story

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By Spyridon (Rick) Grossman


Every year, hundreds of acres of meadows in this country are brush hogged or mowed and tons of valuable forage left in the fields to rot. Conversely, many small farmers and homesteaders buy their winter's supply of hay. On the surface, this is understandable. A used haybine costs thousands of dollars. Even decent used balers run well over 0. I won't even get into the cost of new mower-conditioners, round balers and the like. There really is a better way to avoid the cost of bought hay while making your own(without spending the next decade's profits on equipment).

There is no reason that anyone with access to a meadow or unused pasture cannot make their own hay. The tools are very simple. Something to mow with, a rake, a fork to handle the hay, a wagon to haul it, and a place to store it. Weather is more important than the type of tools. (There is an excellent Haying FAQ available on the Internet, for those interested in the actual process of hay.) Even a natural, "unimproved" meadow, will produce some nutricious roughage, though perhaps not in the quantities of fertilized, managed hayfields.

I sincerely believe that for a small farmer or stock raiser, loose hay can be the most economical approach. I have bought round bales, bought square bales, made square bales and made loose hay.I intimately know the advantages of each, as well as drawbacks. Round bales are wonderful in that they eliminate the need to feed each day. However, this also encourages farmers to spend less time looking in on stock, especially when the weather is bad. Another drawback is equipment. Because I have an older tractor (1953 Ford Jubilee model NAA) the large round bales must be dragged, as they weigh almost as much as the tractor. Square bales are fine if you have a reliable baler. If not, you may spend half your haymaking time doing repairs.

The economics of loose hay replace labor with expensive purchased inputs. Horse drawn dump rakes are available locally for -45. Some older side delivery rakes can be found as cheap. While you are out looking for the rakes, you can probably find a horse drawn sick bar mower. A usable Case mower just sold in this area for 0. Mint horsedrawn mowers sell for no more than 0 in my area. Brush hogs and rotary mowers can also cut hay, though not as much of the crop will be cut. For a very small operation, there is no reason a string trimmer could not harvest hay. (Scythes do a real pretty job once the user learns to cut and keep them sharp.)

The key to using older machinery is to remember it was meant for horse drawn use. If pulling with a tractor, go slow. These machines simply were not made for high speed use. However, the advantage is that anything will pull this stuff. In the absence of a conventional farm tractor, a larger garden tractor or four wheel ATV will actually pull some of the older machinery. I suspect even a truck driven very slowly might work, especially with tire chains. (Animal power is also a very real option, as ther machines were designed for Horses, Oxen, or Mules.)

Our own operation here involves the use of antique rakes, International Harvester # Nine horsedrawn mowers, a homemade wagon, and stacking hay inside or under tarps. Below was our actual cash outlay for hay made on our own place...

1996 Haymaking costs:

20x40 tarp, bought new in 1995:
Assorted smaller tarps:
2 new bolts for rake:
Repair material for tarp:

(I must confess I also splurged on a new straw hat this year for .00, but it was a very stylish hat (Snowy River style). In spite of this extravagance, for less than 0 dollars we put up and stored about nine to eleven tons of hay. This is the weight equivalent of about 400-450 square bales. This much loose hay is very bulky, so the outside hay is stored on hardwood pallets or castoff tires, both of which are available free. The tarps protect the tops of the hay, and are secured with more old tires. In fairness, I should have amortized the tarp to each year, but I find that a year in our Winter is too much for the economy grade tarps. I would recommend either buying the best and heaviest tarp you can find or buying a new one each year. Frankly, I lost some hay due to wear that a newer tarp could have avoided.

I also left out equipment costs, because some was purchased and some inherited. A new operation would need to add:

Tractor: Ford NAA ,000. If only making hay, a much smaller or less desirable tractor will work. (Ex: Farmall H, M or Cub 00-00, John Deere A or B 0, Allis Chalmers WC or WD series 00.)

Mowers: Horse drawn Sickle Bar -450. (Will work with any tractor, we have three of these cause they are so interesting). Ferguson Hitch (3point), Farmall hitch or other tractor drawn sickle bar mowers 5-450. If you have an older proprietary type of tractor hitch (Like the early Farmalls), equipment is generally cheaper, but harder to find.

Loading: you can certainly rake by hand and load. You can also often buy older "beavertail loaders" which will pick up raked hay onto wagons. The last such loader I saw in working condition sold for 0 at an Amish auction. In the West, Buck Rakes which push hay into stacks may be available. Though I have never used one, I am toying with cobbling one together for my tractor. Beavertail loaders are faster, than hand loading, but a little frantic to the person working the wagon.

Rakes: Dump rakes are pulled until they fill, then the rider can dump the hay into a windrow. The down side of dump rakes is that they are slower, and should really probably be used in concert with a tedder-kicker. Side delivery rakes are typically more expensive, but windrow with less effort. I bought my International Harvestor dump rake for .00. I just saw a horsedrawn tedder sell for .00. Side rake prices will vary more, but there are still bargains among older rakes on steel.

I will not mention wagons, because the price and quality vary so widely. Mine is made from a bought gear box with a homemade frame. However, there are some essential handling tools:

Pitchforks: (2 of the best available)
Hayknives (to cut into stacks): for two at auctions
Croom (old time fork to pull hay off top of stacks): at auction

With exception of the tractor, Loose hay capital costs should not exceed 0, even in a worst case scenario. Even a few acres of hay will pay for this quickly. The matter of a tractor is a major consideration for any homestead. If you grow crops at any scale, you probably need a tractor, horses, Oxen, or some power source. When you have it, you will use it for much more than hay making.

Any extension economist who reads this is going to flip out because my economic analysis forgot labor costs. Actually, in a real, complete accounting system (as expressed in Gene Logsdon's "Amish Economics") I do include those, and here they are:

1. My young nieces can safely ride along when we gather hay. I would not let small children anywhere near a modern round baler. What is it worth to them to be part of three generations doing something productive together outside? What would a theme park charge them for a ride on tons of loose hay? They also have energy to spare, and adore jumping on the stacks before I cover them. This provides me the great service of packing the hay. (Perhaps an extension economist would have me write their playtime as minimum wage labor costs)

2. My father is 67 years old. God willing, we will share many more years on this earth together. However, when we buck bales on the field I rent, It is much harder on him than working loose hay. With loose hay, skill counts as much as brawn. I could not even begin to compute what it is worth to me to work at this task together with my father. This is one of special times we can spend together, where we are part of an activity our family has been doing on this farm for five generations (6, including my nieces, Caitlin and Leah). Even if Dad and I don't talk when we work, we are together.

3. Loose hay takes longer to move, so I typically refill feeders at least two time each day. A big part of managing livestock is simply watching them, every day. Its too easy to dump a round bale and leave for two days. If the stockman is not out with the animals, minor diseases spread. When I see my stock twice each day, I know whose sick, whose eating, whose ready to lamb, etc. This saves time, money, antibiotics and heatbreak.

4. Near the center of the stack, the hay is a fresh as the center of the best round bale. This quality is worth a lot.

5. The work admittably takes more time than modern methods, but the exercise is good, the air is fresh, and I can work at my own pace. Sounds just like a golf game! What does this exercise save me each year in medical bills?

6. My antique equipment is very well built and very inexpensive to maintain. There are no complex parts, and specialized repairmen are never needed. I am no genius, but even I can replace broken bolts. The farm machinery built in this country during the latter part of the horsedrawn era was made to last forever. In my accounting, equipment is not amortized because it will probably never completely wear out. Also, thanks to the Amish, there is a whole network of parts suppliers.

The big downside of loose hay is space for storage and moving it. However, the modern technology cheap plastic taps makes outside storage at ground level possible. Bales have a place in the agricultural world (especially sales and road transport), but don't let anyone convince you that putting up hay the old way is harder. I have been bucking square bales since I was 11 years old, and a day of loose haying is easier. It is more time consuming, but the time fits the scale of my 75 acres, a small herd of 30-50 sheep, typically a half dozen calves, and occasional other hay-chomping critters. I may buy a baler and do use the baler of the landowner I rent from, but it is very satisfying to know we have developed a system where we do not need one. Good luck out there, and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your sheep, goats, or horses content as they eat the forage provided them by your hand and God's provision of good summer weather.

I am always glad to correspond or talk with anyone about haymaking, old time farm machinery, or related subjects.

Rick Grossman

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Basil (Darin) Arrick, basil@homestead.org
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