The transition from late spring to early summer was always my favorite growing up. The long, hot days meant different things over the course of my childhood, first afternoons at the pool, then evenings at ballfields and, eventually, days in a hayfield working with my grandparents.
Hay season had a certain rhythm on the ranch. We encountered different obstacles each year, and every day was different. But there were similarities, too. For all the differences, the routines stayed largely the same.
It started with swapping out the sections on the mower’s sickle bar. Each of the serrated triangles was secured with two bolts. The 14-foot bar held 56 sections and changing them was the easiest part of the job. Sliding the bar back into place between guard sections required a lot of hammering along with a few choice words.
The mower was called a hydroswing because of the hydraulics used to “swing” it back and forth behind the tractor. After the cutting bar sliced off the prairie a few inches above the ground, a reel shuttled the grass to the center where it was promptly ejected from a chute through the back of the machine in a windrow.
Mowing hay with the contraption was fairly easy when everything was in working order. Between the sickle sections, hydraulic pumps and other moving parts there were plenty of things that could go wrong. An O-ring on one of the pumps regularly wore out and had to be replaced. Going too fast over thick grass could clog the chute, requiring the operator to have to dig it out.
By far the most common issue was a broken section, which would leave a narrow strip of uncut grass. If the section was on either side of the windrow, it was easy to spot. If it was buried under the foot-thick mound of hay however, it could take several rounds to discover. Replacing a broken section required cleaning the hay off the afflicted area while keeping an eye out for nearby critters. Then you’d remove two bolts on the guard plate followed by holding the section.
With ample sunshine and the right amount of wind, you could cut hay by mid-morning, and it would be cured enough to bale by late afternoon. Under usual conditions, we allowed at least 24 hours between cutting and baling, ensuring the hay was dry. The curing process was critical because too much moisture can cause the hay to catch fire days or weeks after it’s baled and stored.
Timing was a key element to the entire operation. We wanted enough hay cut and curing to keep the baler rolling, but we also didn’t want to have too much on the ground in case of rain. Not only would it delay the curing process, but a heavy rain would also require the extra step of raking the windrow to speed the drying process and preserve the quality of the hay.
Each morning started the same. We’d refuel the tractors and inspect the hydroswing and baler, being sure to locate even the hard to reach grease fittings while saying unkind words about engineers. Once the sun was high enough to burn off the morning dew, we’d start cutting and baling and work until evening.
The work was solitary. You could listen to the hum of machinery for hours without hearing a word until it was time to eat. The only other time we’d stop during the day was sometime in the afternoon. My grandmother would put some ice and a few cans of pop in a cooler and meet us in the field.
The short break for a refreshing drink also offered the opportunity to compare notes about how everything was going, make plans for the next day or maybe continue a debate that arose during lunch. Some days we nursed those drinks, while other times we drank them quickly.
Of all the hayfield routines, this brief break was my favorite. I learned a lot working in those fields, but some of the best education happened in those small conversations when we paused from harvesting hay.