Though it was a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d write about our experience ‘bucking’ hay, before too much time passes and we forget. It was a fun adventure for us, especially so because it occurred when H was out of town. Though he had given us some pointers beforehand, nothing happened the way we expected, and we kind of had to wing it.
The tricky thing about hay, I’ve learned, is that it must stay dry. Wet hay rots, and rotted hay is no good for livestock, or much of anything else either. That can be tough in western NC, and especially in the mountains. Little microclimates in valleys and at different elevations make the weather unpredictable; and, like much of the south, you typically get an afternoon rain shower every day. Though it has dried out a bit now, for a period there we were getting heavy rains at least every other day, if not every day. It isn’t enough to have one sunny day. The whole process ideally should take 3 days – one to cut the hay, one to dry it, and one to bale it. That doesn’t count the time it takes to load the hay on a truck and store it.
But you don’t want to wait too late in the season to cut your hay, or it loses its nutritional value. So H was getting nervous about the hay long before he left town, wondering if it was getting too brown to be of any use, and worrying about who would be able to help us with the task if he had to leave. After H left, T monitored the weather closely every day, looking for a window of dry weather. H had arranged for a few community members and a teenage hired hand to help cut, bale, load and store the hay. Finally, we got a stretch of clear, dry days in a row, and we were excited to see some big machinery arrive on the pasture. We’d collect some hay from the pasture here, and share some with other community members.
We expected square bales, weighing about 40-50 pounds each. The plan was for me to drive the truck around the pasture, while T and the teenage muscle tossed bales (the ‘bucking’ part) into the truck bed. So we were a little surprised to see giant, 500 pound round bales popping out of the rear of the big machinery in our pasture. We had no idea how we were going to manage them, but they were beautiful, and called to the inner child to come and play. That night we went out in the pasture and climbed on top of the big rounds to watch fireflies and look at the stars.
The next morning we woke again to the sound of machinery, and to our relief saw a neighbor using a tractor with a forked attachment to spear the bales and move themy. We assumed they would be moving the bales for us as well, but as the sun started to set, T noticed 10 bales remaining in the pasture, and the neighbor driving away in his tractor. With some quick thinking and negotiating, T caught the neighbor before he disappeared, arranged to borrow the forked attachment, and figured out how to attach it to H’s tractor.
The next day we worked together to spear and move the bales. It was blissful to be in the sunshine, sitting on T’s lap in the tractor (probably not tractor safety 101), feeling his arm, warm and solid, tighten around my waist as we rolled over ditches and dips. One thinks of pastures as flat, but there are actually quite a few bumps out there, and several times the jostling would cause the hay bale to slip right off the forks. T and I would have to push and roll the behemoth into the right position and fork it again. Finally we got some of the bales into the barn, and the rest up onto palates and hastily covered with plastic tarps to protect from an afternoon rain.
We’d need about 170 square bales to get the 2 horses and 3 cows through the winter. We’d gotten about 10 round bales, which is about equivalent to 100 square bales, but we’d need more. So H had arranged with another farmer across town to sell us his bales. The next day, he was ready for us, and T called the teenage muscle to arrange for him to meet us there with his truck. Two big dudes, plus two big trucks, would make the job twice as fast – and these were small square bales, which should be easier to manage.
But the teenager doesn’t show, and we end up making 3 trips to get all we need. At first, my strapping man of Scottish stock didn’t need an ounce of help, and I just tried to look pretty and drive the truck as he seemingly effortlessly tossed in bale after bale. But 70, scratchy, itchy, 50-pound bales is a lot, and by the end, T needed a hand. This was especially so since some ominous dark clouds were looming on the horizon, and this hay would need to be in the barn before rain reached us.
Back at our farm, I did my best to help T quickly get the bales into the barn, but I probably only slowed him down. This was the kind of activity that makes me painfully aware of my spaghetti arms that can’t even manage my own weight in a push-up. But there’s no better way to ward off the dreaded mid-life floppy-arm than to lift and toss hay bales. Despite my best efforts, though, we ended up leaving several bales outside the barn, thinking the priority was to get back and get that second load.
We were hauling the second truck-load back across town, debating whether we had time to stop at the grocery for dinner ingredients before the rain, when those dark clouds released their cargo. From the top of a hill, still in sunshine, we could see the wall of rain across the road about 100 yards ahead. Not having any experience with hay, and only knowing how important it was that it not get wet, this seemed like a big problem. A big, disappointing, frustrating, ‘what did we just do all that work for’ problem. If we drove fast enough, would the water just skim off the bales? Was this a quick shower, or would it rain the rest of the way home? Should we turn the truck around and try to outrun the storm? Too late for critical decision-making, we hit the water wall, which wasn’t just a little rain – this was a torrent. Thinking quickly, I spotted a gas station with a high canopy and T swerved across the highway in the top-heavy truck, sloshing through the river of water that had already accumulated on the road, and, in my imagination, rising up onto two skidding wheels. We were only in the rain for about 2 minutes, but it was such a downpour, and we could tell that most of the bales were pretty wet. Our hearts sank as we realized that, judging by the sky and the path of the storm, those bales we left outside the barn were probably soggy sponges as well.
Just a few minutes later the rain let up, and we decided we might as well go to the grocery. We went back up the hill 100 yards, and pulled in to a completely dry grocery parking lot. What kind of karma is that? If we had gone to the grocery in the first place, the hay would have stayed completely dry.
Fortunately, in the end, it turns out that a little moisture isn’t as critical as we thought. The rain only penetrated about an inch into each bale, which was easily dried by a morning in the sunshine. But that meant another morning of lifting and rearranging hay bales that we were long past feeling done with. By the end we were toxic-ly stinky, itching like crazy, and covered in tiny little scratches that are still showing their marks. Lesson learned: when bucking hay, wear gloves, long pants, and a long sleeve shirt, no matter how hot it is.