I work in a big office environment, where people tap away feverishly at keyboards for 8.5 hrs a day. It’s not quite an information services company, but IT impacts everything we do, and there’s not a single department in our building that doesn’t have a wishlist full of menial, tiresome tasks that could be automated if only our IT department had the time to take it on.
And sometimes, they do take it on. When deciding what tasks to automate, our CTO assesses what tasks take the largest number of staff hours versus the complication and expense of developing an automated program. If a repetitive task takes 1000 annual hours of staff time, and it can be automated via a program with only 40 hours of developer time, then it’s often in the best interest of everyone to automate that task. The company saves money, and employees feel greater job satisfaction by having time for higher level tasks. You assess what jobs are the biggest time suck, with priority given to the simplest and most repetitive tasks (which can be most easily automated).
Josh and I are mid-way through our third growing season at Bellfern Homestead. That means we’re on our third garden, our third sounder of pigs (“sounder” is the collective noun for pigs; I know this because I googled it, but if you use it in casual conversation, you are certain to receive blank stares, so beware), and our third season of hay.
Of those 3 things, hay has been the most stressful for us. We have a 7 acre property, and about 5 of those acres are pasture. Pasture = grass, or at least it should. Most pastures are a mix of different varieties, like timothy, fescue, ryegrass, and orchardgrass. Unfortunately, there are plants like thistle, bulrush, and poison hemlock in most fields that are hardier than these desirable species of grass, and without intervention, the weeds will slowly, and then rapidly, begin to outcompete the pasture grass species. Just like an unmown lawn.
There are two ways to keep pasture healthy: rotationally graze the pastures with ruminants (cows, sheep, or goats), or cut the grass and remove it from the field (“haying”). Whether an animal eats it, or you cut and remove it, mown grass pushes to regrow and comes in thicker and more robust than it was before it was cut and allows the grass to compete with the weeds.
We use the hay for animal food and bedding all year long, so it’s important to us to harvest and store enough to meet the farm’s needs until next spring. Although some climates will let you get away with leaving the hay in the fields in giant mounds (haystacks), the Pacific Northwest is not one of those climates. It has to be packaged up somehow and stored under cover.
Recognizing the degrading condition of our pasture, and the bulrush that is robustly outcompeting the pasture grass, Josh began harvesting hay last year with his scythe. You can watch Josh and his scythe in action on his YouTube channel, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Weirdly, there’s a tribe who is very into that sort of thing, because it’s the internet and of course there is.)
After he cut a half an acre or so, we would fluff it up with garden rakes to help it dry, then fluff it up a couple more times the following day, then finally rake it into piles from which we laboriously “baled” it by cramming that hay into a garbage can and tying it off, by hand, with baling twine.
Now, ask me what farm chore I hate the most. The thing I never want to do again. Mucking 20 lbs of chicken poop out of the coop? Nope. Giving a pig an oil bath? Nope (that’s actually awesome). Eviscerating 50 chickens in a morning? Nope. Weedwhacking blackberries? Close, but no.
It’s baling hay. By hand. It’s the worst.
Although we were glad to learn that it was possible to bale hay by hand, we both agreed that the task was #1 on our list for automation.
After much hemming and hawing, we decided that it was finally time to get a tractor. And a baler.
There are a few brands that make/made two-wheel walk-behind tractors, including Grillo, Planet Jr. (now out of business, but they still have a loyal following), Gravely (also discontinued), and perhaps the best-known brand, BCS.
Walk behind tractors are not very well known in the U.S., where cropland is farmed at an industrial scale of hundreds of acres and requires massive machinery to manage. The smaller walk-behind tractors are much more popular in Europe and Asia where people are farming small acreage, mostly by hand. Like us.
We have the BCS 852, which is basically an engine with two wheels and a power takeoff (PTO) that can drive dozens of attachments.
The Caeb baler is made in Italy, and it’s even more unusual/rare than the two-wheeled tractor. It produces “mini” round bales about 50-70 lbs each, wrapped with netting.
Our tractor and baler arrived around noon, and Josh spent the entire afternoon unpacking and assembling them, and by 8 p.m. that same night, we were baling hay! For now, we’re still cutting and raking it by hand, but those chores seem minor compared to the monumental task of baling it.