A large part of writing life is spent researching information that, when woven into a story, creates a believable world that readers will enjoy spending time in. This process is immensely enjoyable to me. Currently, I’m writing about characters who are wintering a horse and a few goats in the early 1900s. The livestock will require hay. Since the people have no access to mowing equipment, I’m learning about how they would have harvested hay by hand. I really enjoyed these videos and I hope you will too.

Hay is a cutting of grass and meadow plants which are then dried and stored. It is used as overwinter feed for livestock while the pasture is inaccessible due to weather conditions. Hay is not to be confused with straw which is a biproduct of a wheat field.

In most areas, farmers can get two cuttings of hay from a field, and sometimes three. The first cutting is generally the largest. An accurate estimate of hay need for the livestock was critical. If a horse were fed only hay over the winter, they would need to consume about 25 pounds of hay per day. This is based on a 1000-pound adult horse which typically consumes 2-2.5% of their body weight each day. A goat requires 2-4 pounds of hay per day.

All hay is not of equal quality. In the Canadian documentary series, Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West (episode 7: The Long Haul), their two farm horses lost a concerning amount of weight over the winter months. A veterinarian pointed out that the wild hay they’d been feeding the animals didn’t have enough nutrients to sustain them. Interestingly, the area had experienced record rainfall in June which contributed to the lower quality of grass. A neighbouring farmer provided them with supplementary feed, a combination of alfalfa and grass. Alfalfa is a legume hay from the pea family and rich in protein.

Hay was manually harvested using a scythe. Although my focus is on hay, I did find the grain cradle interesting, so I included a video of it in use as well. Both tools were used in an upright position with wide swinging and rhythmic strokes.

The felled grass lay on the ground to dry in the sun. Hay forks were used to turn and fluff the grass over in the coming days so it dried thoroughly. Every farmer hoped that hay laying in their fields would not be rained on or endure humid conditions. If not properly dried, two problems could arise. Firstly, damp hay can spontaneously combust due to heat building chemical reactions which puts the farm at risk for fire. (I’ve witnessed this building of heat through fermentation after piling grass clippings on our garden.) And secondly, long drying time coupled with high humidity can result in moldy hay. This is a danger to both farmer and livestock, as mold dust from the hay can be inhaled and lead to diseases of the lungs.

Hay was not grown as a cultivated crop on the early farms because of the difficulty of harvesting it, and the worth of hay as fodder or cash crop compared to that of other crops. When hay was harvested, it was often from marshy areas known as beaver meadows. The hay crop would be heavy in such locations, but would have to be carried out on poles to a waiting hay rack, as the ground would usually be too wet to support the weight of a team and wagon. It would be necessary to cut the hay with a scythe or cradle as it was unlikely that a mower could operate there either.

This clip shows the process from cutting with a scythe, forking the hay to help it dry, through building a haystack.

Once dried, the grass can be raked into windrows. It can then be lifted with a hayfork and loaded onto a cart. There is a knack to loading a cart so the hay doesn’t roll off as it jostles to the barn. So you load the hay in piles around the edges of the cart so that it naturally tips toward the centre of the cart instead of toward the outer edges. The same principle applies if the hay must be stored in a huge pile.

Over the winter, the hay could become densely packed and it could be challenging to extract a neat forkful. Farmers used a hay saw to cut a section that could be tidily lifted out with the fork.

Hay knife

Neighbours sometimes helped each other get large jobs done by holding community work parties called bees. In Early Life in Upper Canada, author Edwin C. Guillet tells about a bee in Darlington Township at which 35 men cut rye and hay, and 10 cradlers were on hand to collect it. The harvest went so smoothly that “there was time for gymnastics, trials of strength, running and jumping, and other popular pastimes such as throwing the hammer and putting the stone.”

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