At Large: No June for haymaking

At Large: No June for haymaking

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June is when you make hay. That’s true almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Here, June is usually iffy for haymaking, because the weather is variable, the cool ocean air slows the mown hay’s drying, and, when the sea air feels the sun, there’s the fog, early morning and early afternoon.

The very hot weather in the early part of this month was good for hay. The gray, drizzly, rainy weather that will have dominated for about two weeks now has been very bad, especially for haymakers who thought they’d get a jump on the work during the hot June days. The sight of their first cutting languishing in the field, soaking, blackening, and becoming compost is a heartbreaker. Might as well just rake it up, compost it, and spread it next spring.

For some Vineyard haymakers, the product is a cash crop, often for horses or sheep, some for milking cows, but not as the chief source of nutrition. Making good grass hay for horses or second cut for sheep is not for the faint of heart, but good hay is valuable. It just requires some luck and well-timed work.

If the sun shines again, farmers will be anxious to cut hay, not only because they’ve got to get on with it but because making good hay depends on cutting it when it ought to be cut, not on the weather’s schedule. But, if you lay five acres of grass and clover down, and the fog, humidity, and especially rain, get at it, you’re cooked. The best system is to cut the hay about mid-morning, when the sun is getting up in the sky. Then ted it out so the sun can get at it. Undoing the windrows left by the mower conditioner and tossing the grass around is a job for the tedder.

Tedding hay is pleasant work. I’ve done my share of it. You hum along on the tractor dragging a sort of horizontal whirl-a-gig with four sets of spinning tines. The best of them are geared so that you can run through the windrows at high speed (for a tractor) but treat the hay gently as you go. The spinning tines tear apart the windrows and toss the hay up and out, but because the tines are thin and flexible, and because the speed at which they spin is slow relative to the tractor’s RPMs, the tedder treats the hay sympathetically. This is especially important with legume hays like alfalfa, which makes a nutrient-rich feed for milk cows, sheep, and other creatures whose digestive systems can manage it. Don’t want to damage the drying leaves that are so nutritious.

Like balers and mower-conditioners, tedders are bewildering technical creations — who conceived these things, one wonders — an evolutionary step along the path from ancient days when farmers walked along their windrows with a pitchfork and tossed the hay into the air to dry it. Apart from lubrication, modern tedders need no ingenuity to do their work, although a French model I once used could make you crazy trying to remember how to collapse its 18-foot width down to 8 feet, so it could go over the road.

The haymaking farmer is an artist and a scientist and a gambler. The seeds he chooses, the fertilizer he uses, the pH of the soil, the seedbed preparation and seed coverage, these are among the scientific matters he must master. When to cut and bale, an instinct about the weather, these are the bits of artistry. How to round up enough cheap help to get it all into the barn before a thick fog or rain, there’s artistry in that as well. And the best odds the farmer gets are even.

Walking along the road by the northern edge of a mown field, the sweet smell of the grass heating in the dry air intoxicates a passerby. As its moisture content lowers by the hour, the grass becomes hay. It makes, as the farmer would say. That’s generally true all over the Island in June, as the weather permits. Tons of hay will be mowed and windrowed, ready to bale. Weeks of rain and waiting, and then the weather breaks, and all the fields demand to be cut at once.

I’ve noticed a big, flat grass field, where the farmer has waited till the plants are tall. The wind riffles across the field, and the heavy seed heads submit. This grass would have yielded a more potent hay, but not so much volume, if it had been cut earlier. But the weather has been mostly anti-hay.

This newly mown grass appears to be made of mature plants, high in fiber content. When this hay is baled, the age and dryness of these plants will produce a lot of good feed, lower in nutritional value but safe even for horses.

What’s needed is a haymaker of a day. A dry easterly. Lots of sun, a day that feels dry despite the wind. Perhaps tonight, before the evening dampness descends on his crop, the farmer will rake it all again into windrows, to shelter the nearly made hay from the dampness. In the morning, before the dew has evaporated, he will make the critical judgment: Has the moisture content been reduced sufficiently so that I can safely bale this hay without it moldering or, God forbid, spontaneously combusting in my barn? Without doubt, a crucial question. Dusty hay cannot be fed to horses, and even cattle may turn away from it. A bad decision, and there’ll be a barn full of worthless, even incendiary, feed.

Cautiously, he may decide it needs some more sun before it’s ready for baling, so he’ll run all over that big field tedding the hay out under the morning sun. That means that at midday, in lieu of lunch, he’ll wander through the strewn grass, picking up a handful here and there to sniff. If it’s hay, it smells sweetly like hay, and the farmer knows what made hay smells like.

His decision made, he will have to go all around the field once more, raking the hay into windrows for the baler later in the afternoon. Mow, ted, rake, ted, rake, bale. Each operation requires irretrievable hours as the tractor travels back and forth across the field. Good hay is time-consuming, satisfying, aromatic, visually delightful work, hard on the back and tricky to figure, and the haymaking moment for 2011 is here, weather or not.