Small-Scale Hay Making, by Oregon Bill

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.

Hay Cutting

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

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.




44 Comments

  1. About 15 years ago, my elderly friend, now passed, had me cut his small piece of grass with his long used scythe. It was comical for the family to watch him demonstrate his silky smooth movement to the former bodybuilder hacking mightily at the grass. Did get it done…but embarrassing. If at all possible where you live, volunteer to help a neighbor with that chore and learn the rudiments, which could come in handy someday. Thanks for the enjoyable article. Mtn Marv in NC

  2. Nice article. On a side note…

    I don’t know for how many other “Hays” this applies for but,

    When I read you talking about cutting green hay and using a mechanical bailer … I remembered that green cut and bailed alfalfa bails will combust on thier own.

    I’m my home county in California we grew a lot of alfalfa (average farm size over 1,000 acres) and it is a well know phenomenon that hay stack and hay bails will catch fire on thier own from time to time.

    Just a little bit of info for your consideration.

    1. I forget the percentage, but a bale with too much water will compost and build up heat to the point that it catches fire. In Kentucky it was not uncommon to see charred bales dumped beside the road after cuttings, and a few years back a commercial barn burned down from bales igniting.

    1. Don’t worry about prepping if you can’t improvise scythe handles.
      By the way. Let’s make sure we aren’t just prepping for the sake of survival, but let us make sure we are prepping for a revolution against the system. IF collapse come any time soon, you can expect it.

      1. Windmill, I don’t know what kind of life you have lived…nor how much international travel you have experienced, your knowledge in regard to the rest of the world, etc. So I’m not sure what your “revolution” is all about. I can tell you that your comment in many other world nations might bring about your vanishing act. For me, growing up in a strict but loving and supportive Christian family, of modest means, working my way thru 6 years of University, enjoying a very stimulating and fulfilling career, now semi-retired living on my heritage farm (meaning a century in the family) , I have to say life in these United States has been very good. Yes, I have experienced several life threatening adventures and events (usually of my own making), survived those as a better man. I have generally found that the “revolution” begins with changing your own person.

      2. Windmill …. Feel free to improvise all the handles you want.

        A life time of working heavy labor (agro through construction ) has taught me the value of a good handle. Myself I keep one handle of every one of my tools spare laying around…. Shovels … Chisels… Saws… Hammers…

        This way when things get bad and I break it a handle with no home Depot around I can replicate it.

        I’m guessing your not a huge daily tool user so to compare what a bad handle is like set your office chair up higher than your feet will touch the ground by 2 inches and recline the back of it by 4 inches do that for a week and you will see the importance of ergonomics.

  3. Oregon Bill! Really enjoyed your article, and the idea of small-scale hay making — especially for maintenance of our hen house! It’s a great idea, and it was a story of your experience well told. Farming as a social event… This really made us smile. We agree.

    From your post and oh-so-true: “It is good to work your own land. It is priceless.”

  4. A wonderful article. Down to earth and a very important (and over-looked) aspect to self sufficiency.

    I have participated in this practice before. Was using an old scythe that I was told was well built. Within 5 swings, the handle busted off. Who’s gonna make the back-pack bush-craft version? 🙂

  5. I’ve wondered about this; a few companies make self-powered (aka “walk behind”) sickle bar mowers. They seem more popular in Europe than the US.

    Sickle bars for tractors are available in widths from 5 to 9 feet; I’d think a self-powered version, about 8-10 HP, 5 ft cutting width, operated at 1 MPH (88 feet per minute) would be a very useful homestead tool (5 ft X 1MPH = 99 minutes/acre).

    There are small rotating-cutter walk behinds in Europe that cut about a 24″ wide swath at walking speed (2-2.5MPH) which comes to about 2 hrs/acre. These seem to windrow the cuttings pretty easily for raking. Bumping the cutter head to about 36″ should be easy (reduces time to 1.4 hrs/acre). .

    All of these solutions require gasoline which will be in short supply, or non-existent, after SHTF, but until then they might make “unworthy” land more useful by harvesting it for natural growing fodder.

    After SHTF, diesel (or “diesel substitutes” like kerosene with oil added) may be more available than gasoline, and I wouldn’t rule out a small steam engine, which makes me wonder why no one has designed and marketed a simple low-power steam engine for homesteaders as a “universal power supply” for electrical generation, powering small tractors, cutting equipment, pumps, etc. Could be someone has, I’m just not aware of it.

    1. If I was gonna go the steam route I would look I to a generator. It would be best i.m.h.o. to make electricity for multiple electrical applications rather than make a steam tractor a steam Genny a steam carriage … Etc all requiring seperate boilers and fuel for them.

      Make one boiler one engine and hook up multiple alternators and batteries

    2. Earthtools.com is the big US distributor for the tools you’re thinking of. Two-wheeled tractors and attachments that can perform about any task. Amazing tools, stupid easy to maintain and dirt cheap to operate. I love mine.

  6. This article does a great job of pointing out that time management is of vital importance.

    There is a school of thought that believes they will be able to do it all…

    I got a sniper rifle, shotgun, pistol, I can make biodiesel, grow my own food, raise all my own livestock , make my own tools forge my own knives. . Etc.

    And there is the school of thought that knows community or at least trade is required to survive.

    They know it’s very hard to go from ace (super long range shooting ) sniper to point shooting a shotgun or hand gun in cqb …. Even harder vice versa. And that running productive land (growing) is very time intensive.

    When I was picking lettuce and watermelons cabbage etc …. It would take multiple all-day over time days for weeks for us to clear a field…. And that was a team endeavor.

    Earlier I posted about making my own handles….

    If I had to harvest fresh wood to make them each handle (counting drying time) would take about a month. With a solid (hand tool only construction) 30 hours of labor. I would have to cut a branch mill it, dry it, pattern it, rough cut, final pattern, scrape or flame smooth it, fit it to the tool, and finally finish it. It’s a lot of work and that’s just the handle. If we were talking about a saw blade or chisel blade I would also have to be smelting or forging casting etc… Yes I could do this while I was drying the wood but what I couldn’t be doing at that time is tending my fields… By my self.

  7. Oregon Bill, wonderful article! Except now I’ve had Whittier stuck in my head all day: “Maud Muller on a summer’s day, raked the meadow sweet with hay…”

    I always enjoy reading about folks making their own equipment. I only wish my internet connection allowed me to watch your YouTubes. I never thought of making my own hay forks but you’ve inspired me with yours. Any pointers on making them?

    I wish I would have discovered the concept of using tarps to move hay and leaves five years sooner than I did. If you have any buddies at the lumber yard, ask them for some of the wraps bundles of lumber arrive in. They’re high quality and nearly as good as most of the tarps you buy, plus you don’t have to worry about snagging them or getting holes in them because they’re free. They come in all sizes and shapes since lumber comes in lengths ranging from 8′ to 16′ and longer.

    Here’s a thought for TEOTWAWKI. The main reason I started cutting my pasture was for one of the reasons mentioned in the article, to keep “the blackberries and brambles at bay” but in my case, it was also a noxious perennial weed that had taken over the abandoned pasture before I bought the property. That weed turned into a huge fire hazard every year after it dried down. Post-SHTF, pasture and lawns will tend to become thickets and forests over time if not mown, which are also fire hazards if they are close to our homes. So it seems like having a scythe or some other manual mowing system in our preps would be prudent.

    1. making the fork was fun – no real trick to it just a decent, long length branch that doesn’t split after peeled and dried. my son made the one pictured, using a draw knife. i still get some pleasure out of my son’s excitement having a nice, rustic draw knife for a birthday present 😉

      wider forks are always best. i’ve busted and repaired those forks several times until they are ‘just right’ for strength and usage. now they don’t break down.

      1. Hey Wildbillb, that’s totally awesome, he’ll treasure that knife the rest of his life. One of my girls got pretty good with a draw knife when she was 10 from a project we did and I still call her by a nickname pertaining to that, 20+ years later.

        Sounds like I’ll just have to play around with some different hardwood trees I have and see which ones work best. Should be a fun little project. 🙂

  8. Matt in ok ,,,,,we have passed the point of no return ,a alternet to open fighting is to stop producing any extra ,starve the system ,go Galt ,i did ,stop being a slave to the system ,quit ,
    You can live well on less , less stuff,less stress ,

    As far as the USA government ,it’s like finding out your wife is bedding your best friend , You never get the trust back , Oh you can stay but something is gone ,
    That’s what we have with US government now. Step out of the way,like a bull fighter ,
    Would you ever trust the FBI again ???? Or any of the other ABC,,,XYZ good people don’t trust any more , the battle is lost before it starts ,, i tell my kids to be like a fish and swim around the rocks in the river not into them

    Tea and blueberries

    Who is John Galt ?

    1. Old …. This country and its government are far from perfect but …. I personally believe it’s the best one\ ones.

      There is no need for revolution as of yet. Just informed voting. The vast majority of issues people have with this government and country are problems we as its citizens created.

          1. That’s got my head spinning . . . . not sure. And I’d stay away from the Beatles, I’m pretty sure they started this whole revolution to begin with! Or maybe counter revolution, I’ve got to make a chart to figure this out.

      1. J m Z B,,,,,have lived and worked in far east ,central America,south America , am ok with a dirt floor , no place is perfect ,problem is we the people ,way too soft and indulgent and lazy ,,, trying to live a life beyond our means ,
        Try telling folks God’s going to get you for that , how about less computer time and more time with the book.
        Shalom

  9. Agree with marugg scythe recommendation, have one been using for years to cut grass hay on my small, irregular shaped parcel to keep a herd of meat rabbits fed through the winters when I don’t have enough fresh garden vegetation to give em.

  10. Worked for a neighbor during high school unloading and mowimg away hay (as well as my own farm) where he baled hay that was far too green for my liking. We would put a tier of bales down the take a bag of salt at broadcast it by hand on top. I waited till my own hay was dry by feel. Sometimes they would cook a little but never had any problems.

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