This is my simple experiment on small-time hay making. Small fields of grass can be valuable even if they aren’t worth the effort to mow and bale. We only have a few acres of pasture – enough for a few sheep or goats year-round or for a 2-year-old steer for three months. With so little pasture, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a large mower or bailer, and we wanted to see how feasible it would be to and put up the hay by hand. The amount of hay is worth gathering, and the cutting improves the health of the pasture with new growth, also keeping the blackberries and brambles at bay.
The First Year
I chose to stick with hand tools. An American-made scythe, a homemade hay fork, and a tarp turned out to be our best tools and kept the expenses under $150 total. The other great benefits included a great physical workout, quality time with the kids, and enjoyable contemplation. I’ve uploaded a few video clips of the effort to YouTube for viewing at this link.
Finding a decent scythe was more difficult than I expected. I’m taller than most folks and finding a decent tool that fit was not straightforward. The first tool came from the local hardware store. It looked right, but didn’t fit right, and after taking it home, it failed to function properly. The handles were not adjustable, and the blade attachment did not hold the blade securely. Returning it to the store revealed it had been on the shelf for many years.
Asking around led to antique scythes in the area I was able to try and play with. I also attempted to make a European-style scythe by hand that worked very well, however building a proper blade attachment was difficult, and ordering a new one was rather expensive. In the end, I found a friend with an American style tool that was larger than usual to try. It was not optimal, but I found I could adapt to it and cut plenty of hay with it.
Making the hay fork both larger and stronger than I could have purchased was a fun project. A comfortable hay fork made the turning and gathering enjoyable.
Cutting was obviously most of the work. I did not start cutting the pasture until early in August, when the hay was quite dry, making it more difficult to cut. If I were serious about putting up my hay for livestock feed, I would recommend cutting while the grass is still green. It is much easier to cut and more nutritious. Cutting in August like I did really help spur new growth even later in the summer.
The other key learning about cutting in August is the heat. I waited until August because of other schedule commitments, and to see how well I could fair in the hottest month of our summer. While it was hot, it was not debilitating, and I was careful to keep an easy, steady pace. Again, cutting earlier in the season and in the cooler hours of the day is optimal.
I found I could cut about 1/5th (20%) of an acre in about an hour at my fastest pace. I’d never used a scythe before, am “over the hill” in age, and am fairly out-of-shape. All these big reasons for this experiment. I don’t think this is a reasonable pace for a full acre but cutting half an acre in 2-3 hours was doable. My best experience was in cutting for an hour, raking the cut hay for 10 minutes, then letting it sit for half the day. I’d repeat this again later in the day after other chores or activities. Thus, in about 2 hours per day of cutting I was able to put up over 2 acres of hay in a week. A decent amount of hay and not too demanding or focus.
As you will see in this video, I didn’t work too hard to cut the grass short. There were plenty of uneven areas in the pasture to dull the scythe, and my intent was cutting most of it to spur new growth. I’m not that good with the scythe, either so the field wasn’t as neat as some you’ll see on YouTube. Having longer stubble after cutting did help dry what was cut more quickly.
Raking the hay periodically was easy to do. Going back to turn cut hay for drying or keep it in nicer rows made a nice break from the cutting part. It also made the gathering effort more efficient. Drying the hay in August wasn’t necessary like it would be in May or June but it was good practice.
With a long, wide hay rake it was easy to take a large load and pile it directly. My pasture is adjacent to where I wanted it stored, so carrying it on the fork was simple. The best method for moving lots of hay was to make a large pile on a tarp and haul the tarp. We have several old, worn out tarps for hauling leaves other debris in this manner and they are too valuable to discard. With the tarp we could carry 8-10 fork loads quickly, and pulling the tarp was easily manageable for young teenagers.
Which brings up another great point in cutting your own hay – take along a friend. It was lots of fun with the kids to work together and they enjoyed trying the scythe. When I pointed out they were mowing the ‘lawn’ of course it suddenly stopped being ‘fun’ 😉 A second set of hands was a huge multiplier in how much we got done. Farming is always best when it is social.
Input from the kids was also insightful. Not worrying about a close, clean cut with the scythe made the work more enjoyable and quicker for them. Hand tools were less intimidating to them than power equipment. The quiet let them enjoy their music more. They had the sense of contributing to the family’s success.
After our hay was up and the experiment over, a friend had just cut his larger field (7 acres) with a tractor sickle blade so we helped load all his hay into the barn. He had a small pickup with wooden sides on it that allowed us to gather up much more hay to haul to the barn. Three of us with hay forks and that little truck (overloaded of course) made quick work of two acres each night. And it was fun. Scaling up to make hay on larger amounts of land can easily be done with modest increases in equipment. An older or small ‘hobby’ tractor can easily allow you to cut 5 or even 10 acres of grass. A pickup truck can speed up the gathering dramatically.
There are many great ideas on the internet on how to manually bail hay. It would not be too difficult or expensive to create a bailer. We chose to store the hay loose and stacked in a boarded-off area of a barn where we can stack it, smash it down, and stack some more. Our friend did the same in his barn, and has he feeds he can easily remove the top board to access the pile as it gets smaller. Bailed hay is convenient but adds a lot of work that is not necessary for smaller amounts of hay. Something to consider for your unique situation.
The Second Year
This second year I started cutting the field in April and built my own scythe. The purchased scythe from the first year never fit me quite right because it was too short. I had purchased antique hardware to fasten a blade to my Vine Maple staff. I didn’t do anything to shape the staff other than selecting a branch that was shaped in a nice gradual curve, tapering the end for the hardware fitting, and drilling holes to bolt two handles where I wanted them. I also peeled, dried, sanded, then oiled the staff. It fit better and added to the enjoyment.
The grass was less than knee high, green, and growing fast. I found the green, shorter grass easier to cut. The green grass required longer time in the field to dry – about five sunny days. I tried to rake the cut grass about at least every other day. It was clearly better feed hay when piled. The cooler weather in April and May also improved the enjoyment significantly. This early cutting also resulted in more grass growth for a 2nd cutting, if you want to call more scything a benefit.
The drawbacks of cutting the hay early in the year included a higher risk of rain or bad weather; smaller amounts of grass for the effort; and the field looked much rougher and raggedy after cutting. Make no mistake – a scythe will never look as cleanly cut as a machine. The growing grass confirmed the adage: “the only difference between a good haircut and a bad is two weeks”.
My recommendation is to focus your small hay cutting in the spring. The work is better, and the hay is better. But if you can’t get to it until later in the summer, that is also worthwhile.
This exercise was not any big deal, but it was insightful. With a large yard or small pasture, it is worth considering. The equipment is not expensive, and you will learn valuable lessons to be prepared should you need the hay.
Having the hay on hand is a good feeling. We don’t have larger livestock right now other than fowl, but it is satisfying to see it in the barn and have it on-hand. With a machete I can easily create straw for the chicken’s laying boxes and roost. The chickens also worked the straw pile heavily, utilizing the feed value of the grass. It helped build stronger friendships with neighbors that have larger animals to feed – anyone with animals loves free fodder.
The last benefit to mention is how quiet the work was. No loud tractor or power equipment to draw attention or put fumes into the air. You hear the wind in the grass, the scythe cutting, or the music of your earbuds while enjoying the sweat, the sun, and the clean air. It is good to work your own land. It is priceless.