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.

EQUUS - - Front Page - By Karen El­iz­a­beth Baril

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.


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.”


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)

Draw­ingD wi by ThomasTh Jef­fer­son of his in­ven­tion: the mold­board plow

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