There are numerous ways to solve almost any challenge, but the simplest approach involving the fewest steps and the least energy, materials, and time is always the most effective, long-term, viable solution.
-Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead
Our neighbors invited us over for dinner last weekend, where we enjoyed a feast of the bounty of their homestead: heritage breed turkey, broccoli salad, carrots, blackberry crisp. Their property abuts ours on the back half, and they have a pretty good view of the goings on at our farmstead.They’ve been terrific mentors to us, and we’ll rely on them later this summer for their cider press, and next spring for pruning advice and help.
In the course of good conversation and last season’s apple cider, our neighbor said, “Yeah, I saw Josh scything the field the other day. I had to laugh. Yep, I’ve done things the hard way, too.”
We laughed, but Josh and I don’t entirely agree with him. The scythe seems like a very simple and logical solution to our problem, which is that our pasture needs to be cut.
For some context, we watched the property across the street get hayed over 4th of July week. They have 20 acres. I grew up in corn country in middle America, and although some people grew hay, it wasn’t as common, and I never saw it being harvested. So it was an education to watch what was involved in processing a bale of hay.
Over the course of the week, I observed the following:
- Day 1: A mower pulled by a tractor cut down the hay, where it laid flat on the field like a blanket.
- Day 2: Another attachment with rotating tines that I call the “fluffer” came along and fluffed up that flat hay into tufts, presumably so that it had air flow and could dry out a bit more. I’ve read that there are tractors that combine the cutting and fluffing into one step, but my neighbors didn’t have that.
- Day 3: After drying for a couple of days, yet another attachment raked the fluffed hay into windrows.
- Day 4: The hay baler. This attachment was huge and somehow scooped up those rows of hay and popped them out as rectangular bricks. I saw 3 people required at this stage: one to drive, one to stand on the back and keep an eye on the baler, and another to guide the bales to the ground, where hopefully they don’t break up too much when they land. At some point these bales are tied up with string, but I didn’t see this happen, so I’m not entirely sure how it’s done. Inside the baler, maybe?
- Day 5-?: A crew of people rode around on a hay wagon, again pulled by the tractor, and loaded it up. In their field, this was the most manual process. One person thew the bales up to the wagon, another person stacked. But there are machines (loaders and stackers) that can do this job, too.
- They drove that hay to a barn load after load after load, which took a few more days. At the barn, that hay was unloaded off the trailer and onto an escalator that conveyed each bale up to the hay loft at the top of the barn.
All told, it took our neighbors approximately 12 days to hay their 20 acres, from first cut to put up in the barn. Not every day was a full day, but I did see them out there at sunset a few times. This process required no fewer than 5 different pieces of farm equipment–6 if you include the tractor that pulled it all, which you should–and at least 4 people on the busy days.
Is that the easy way? Their equipment easily surpassed $100k in value, and it was old stuff that requires annual maintenance and repair. At a market price of $4/bale, how many years of haying does it take to recover the expense?
Enter the scythe.
Josh is slowly haying our pasture the old way. He cuts it with a scythe, rakes it into piles, then hauls those piles away on a cart. The scythe cost $180 from Scytheworks in British Columbia. The only other necessary tool is a pitchfork, which doubles as a rake. Nothing is ever heavy enough or complicated enough to require 2 people (although 2 people with 2 scythes would make it go twice as fast!).
The only input is Josh’s time, and he’s a strapping lad and really enjoys it.
We don’t have any livestock to feed over the winter, so our hay is being hauled to weedy compacted ground that may be the future home of garden beds. We pile it on thickly, where it will decompose over the winter and build a top layer of soil. It will also drop seed that will come up in the spring; the new grass will compete with the noxious weeds, like morning glory and blackberry, and the roots will help break up the soil. When we eventually till it under for a garden, the tender green parts will add nitrogen to the soil.
If we did need to store our hay for the winter, there are low-input ways to do that as well. The postcard-perfect haystack effectively dried and stored hay for centuries before the haybaler was invented in the 1940s. If we ever end up raising cattle over the winter, then we might try haystacks for storage.
In a sense, our well-meaning neighbor was right: scything is hard work. But it’s also simple, and in permaculture principles, the simplest approach is usually the best one. Haying a field with numerous pieces of large and expensive machinery is also very hard work, but not at all simple.
Of course, there’s an even simpler option: buy a herd of lambs in early spring, pasture them through the summer so that they keep the grass trimmed but not scalped, and butcher in the fall so you don’t have to pay for winter feed. Maybe next year?