October 18, 2008

Hay collecting & handling

Farming in the North Pennine Dales
By Eric Wilson

Following the horse-drawn gate sweeps and the pike bogey, the tractor mounted hay sweep had it’s turn in the scheme of things. This was a frame with a number of long wooden tines made of ash – some up to 10 feet long and the sharp end equipped with a cast iron turned-up point. This was initially attached to the tractor front axle and driven along the windrow of dry hay in the direction of the stack site or the barn.

Getting far too much on the sweep was the biggest mistake for a beginner running out of tractor power and a huge heap of hay that couldn’t be moved – inevitably at the wrong end of the field. It was a good job all the hand hay forks had not been thrown away as they had to be used to rescue this situation.

Another tricky operation with the tractor hay sweep was going back empty for another load with the tines running on the ground, and a tendency to speed up a bit to make up for lost time. It was very easy to dig a tine into the ground, which went off like a rifle shot to become instant kindling wood.

Though the balers mentioned above all made what was described as high-density bales, there was also a low-density baler on the market. This machine was made by a German firm – Welgar, and was distributed from a Darlington company. Welgar also made high-density balers.

The low-density baler gathered up the hay into a measured bundle, without chopping and compressing it as happened in the high-density machine. Because the hay in the bale was loose, it was more important to get the low-density bales under cover as soon as they were made or they could soon be wet right through.

Soon a lever appeared on the front frame of the hay sweep, with a light cable attached to the top and threaded under the tractor, over a small pulley and attached to the hydraulic linkage. Voila! – a hydraulic hay sweep had arrived. This was not for lifting hay of course, but a great improvement in speeding up the job when travelling empty.

Collecting bales came to be the next problem. More balers were appearing on the scene and those farmers who had invested in one got their hay harvested quicker and were available to do a bit of contracting for relations, friends and neighbours. So picking up bales and getting them safely under cover came to be the hard part of the operation.

However, based on the old teaching that “necessity is the mother of invention” it was not long before bale sledges appeared. These were a basic wooden sled with a platform that would carry six bales at the back stacked in twos, and a space on the front for the operator. The bale catcher grabbed the completed bale as it came out of the end of the chamber and turned to place it on the mini stack on the back.

The sled was towed behind the baler and was fitted with a tilting device to tip each stack of six bales neatly on the ground. At least that’s what the sales brochure said. Actually they could work reasonably well provided the bale catcher was an athletic person. An expert water skier would be ideal –provided the tractor driver behaved himself at the row ends and it was a nice flat hay field to work in – not an apt description of conditions encountered on the average Dales farm.

Fortunately there were still farmers and their families, plus local villagers, who could be relied on to front-up to man-handle the precious hay crop from awkward little fields to a place of safety from the weather. And some of them always saved enough energy to proceed afterwards to the village inn to boast about their achievements, following the slaking of the thirst to “settle ‘t dust”!

Various new types of bale collectors appeared on the market that did not require a person on the back. Some made an attempt to deposit the bales in a reasonable sort of heap, others just left them literally in a heap. There were odd ones that tried to convert the bale back into it’s original state of loose hay scattered all over the field!

Another boon to bale storage was the bale-elevator, which was quite portable and adjustable for height at both ends. This was a great improvement on the somewhat clumsy setting-up procedure needed with the loose hay elevator. In fact with a bale elevator at the shed end, and a good pick-up gang working between field and shed with a 3-ton flat deck truck and pick-up elevator, it meant the farmer could pause for breath occasionally.

Paid by the bale, these gangs would work all night if the conditions permitted and the late English twilight meant they could see what they were doing right up to 11pm.

Haymaking in the Dales could often be a prolonged occupation, depending entirely on the weather. Just when it seemed to be lasting indefinitely, suddenly it was all over, leaving you gasping and wondering what you were doing before it all started, seemingly so long ago.

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