The art and science of Hay
Next time you toss your horse a flake of hay, take a moment to appreciate the renewable resource at the heart of the horse world.
Cutting open a bale of hay and doling it out to your horses is one of those chores we all do countless times. Unless you’rey fortunate enough to live where there’s year-round pasture, you probably do it several times a day, especially in the cold months. And, if you’re like me, you probably don’t think too much about hay unless you’re shopping for it, storing it or hefting it around the barn.
“Hay is humble stuff, it’s true,” says Steven Hoffbeck, a history professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and author of The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families. “When an old farmer from northern Minnesota found out I’d written a book about haymaking he said, ‘Imagine that---that someone could write a book about the lowly subject of making hay.’”
But throughout history, hay was much more than just animal feed: Dried fodder was the main fuel of the
pre-automotive era. Without it, armies couldn’t move any faster than men could march, and all overland transportation would be limited to regions where grazing was available. Hay also made large scale agriculture possible: Cattle and other livestock couldn’t survive winters in northern climates without hay, and horses would be a luxury only the wealthiest could afford.
And even for the modern horse owner, hay is more than just a convenience. I can’t imagine trying to keep
my horses nourished without a full hay shed during a long winter here in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Even my easy-keeping Haflingers would be in trouble. And droughts, like the ones in California, would take on a whole new urgency without a stockpile of hay.
Yet that familiar square bale we all rely on is a modern invention---barely more than 100 years old. Before that, hay was stored loose, in haystacks or piled into haylofts, one pitchfork full at a time. And your whole town’s fortunes might rise or fall based on the year’s hay crop. In fact, the more you understand about the long history of hay and haymaking, the more you’ll appreciate the convenience of our neat, stackable, shippable bales.
Here’s a brief overview of the history of hay, from the hand-held scythe to the gas-powered tractor and into the new millennium.
THE EARLIEST HAY DAYS
When animalss become domesticated, theyey need to be fed year-round.d. In an agrarian community, nity, your local climate woulduld dictate how you cared for or your livestock. If your tribe was nomadic, you might have spent your life following your flocks or herds to better grazing throughout the year. In the mountains, you might have moved your animals to high meadows in the summer and brought them down to closer pastures in winter. In warm climates, your animals might have been turned loose to browse throughout the year. In coldercolde lands, you might have cut “leaf hay”---leafy branches from deciduousd trees such as alder or willow---and allowed them t to dry as winter forage for you your ruminants. And, as archaeological evideennce evidence shows, if you
livvedd lived in Iron Age or Bronze Age villages in northern climates such as Scandinavia, you might have cultivated fields of local grasses or sedges specifically to harvest as forage. Meanwhile, alfalfa was first cultivated around 2000 B.C. in its native area, which is now Turkey and the eastern Caucasus Mountains. The Romans encountered alfalfa hay when they expanded their territory into that region, and soon this ideal horse fodder was grown across much of their empire.
By the Middle Ages hay was a staple crop in European communities that relied on oxen and horsepower. But harvesting a field of grass was labor intensive. You might have used a sickle ---a type of curved blade moun mounted on a short handle used primarily t to harvest grain---but the most state state-of-theart technology was a
longer handl handled tool
Alfalfa was first cultivated around 2000 B.C. in its native area, which is now Turkey and the eastern Caucasus Mountains.
With a scythe, hay could be harvested more efficiently.
called a scythe. The scythe allowed you to work standing up, and you could also bring down a larger swath in one swing of the blade. One person could now easily mow an acre, perhaps two. But mowing was still intensive labor.
“The early farmers invited their neighbors and made the day a party,” says David Tresemer, author of The Scythe Book: Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools. “They’d start mowing at morning light, work hard for several hours and then rest around noon for a very long lunch---three hours or so--stopping to eat and drink beer. The beer was important. It was intended to bring on a nap. After the nap, they’d work again until sundown.”
Once the hay was mowed, you would rake it by hand into windrows to dry before forming it into haystacks for the winter. In later years, you might load your hay into wagons and bring it home to store in your hayloft or silo. “To avoid rotting, the farmer tossed the hay into a mound, keeping the center of the stack high and well packed while building it,” says Hoffbeck. “This way most of the settling would take place on the sides or edges so that rainwater would shed along the outside walls of the stack.”
And, just like today, you had to hope that the weather would offer you a stretch of warm, sunny days so you could get the hay in safely. “Dry weather was always best for haying,” says Hoffbeck, “but not too windy because the wind could blow the leaves right off the hay. The race was against rainfall. If you had the hay in windrows and a heavy rain came, the sodden hay could rot, turning moldy and worthless. Then it would be good for animal bedding only.”
TO THE NEW WORLD
European settlers brought a number of Old World hays to America--orchardgrass, bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. In the early 1700s a New Hampshire farmer named John Herd found a tall-stemmed grass growing in a nearby meadow (although it was introduced from Europe) that earned a local reputation as a quality horse fodder. Then, in the 1720s, Timothy Hanson began
Alfalfa grass ( Medicago sativa)
Timothy grass (Phleum pratense)