From Gene Logsdon
It must appear to the casual observer that when an old man decides to build haystacks by hand when he has at his disposal machines that can toss baled tons of hay around like toy blocks, he must be going crazy. That might be right, but hear me through.
My first turn down the road toward contrary farming was realizing that there is no need to plow up soil to feed the farm animals that feed us. They can easily live their lives happily grazing good pastures in summer and eating good hay from these pastures in winter.
The next contrary fork in the road led me to a conviction that a world of many small farms was better than a world of a few giant farms. I first got that notion from reading F.H. King’s classic book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. I was amazed to learn that a hundred years ago, 500,000,000 people in China, Korea, and Japan— a whole lot more than the population of the United States today— were feeding themselves well on an area less than half the size of the United States. They had no monstrous machines, no herbicides, no chemical fertilizers, and no Monsanto. They were feeding themselves with hundreds of thousands of garden farms averaging less than an acre in size.
My contrariness then became terminal. If America were to do that today, which we very well could, it would mean replacing fossil fuel energy with human muscle energy. Doing that would be repugnant to the modern mind. If I wanted our society to become a nation of garden farms, I had to demonstrate that on a small scale, even quite strenuous physical work can be pleasant, certainly a whole lot more pleasant than training for an Olympic gold medal.
Enter, the cheapskate haystack.
The one you see in the photo above will have, when finished, about the same amount of hay in it as 30 string-tied bales, which, if as high in quality as the hay in this stack, are selling right now for $5.00 each— twice that in California, I’m told. The smallness of the stack does not limit the amount of hay that can be made. If more hay is desired, more small stacks can be built.
The first step is to site your stack in the middle of about an acre of hay so that there is only a short walking distance from the stack to most of the hay that will go into it. I mow and rake the hay with tractor and implements that are nearly as old as I am. When we were young, Carol and I actually raked the hay into windrows by hand. Most of the windrowed hay can be carried by the forkful to the stack. The windrowed hay farther away we fork onto the pickup truck and haul it to the stack. The extra height obtained by standing on the truck bed allows me to make the stack higher than I could standing on the ground.
I burn only about 4 gallons of gasoline to make a stack since so much of the work is our own manual labor. The exercise in hand-forking hay is certainly as healthful as spending big bucks at one of those exercise centers up town so I think of the labor as a profit, not a cost.
You don’t need a calculator to figure out how cheaply we make our little haystacks. Although one purpose here is to accommodate old age— that is to have no more physical work to do in a day than I can handle, there are other important reasons for making only an acre or less of hay at a time on a garden farm. I can delay mowing until the weather reports practically guarantee two days of dry weather. Because only a small amount of hay is involved at any one cutting, I can build the stack in increments— there are actually three or sometimes four cuttings in the finished stack. So the stack from the first mowing is quite small and the hay going into it does not have to be as completely dry as it would have to be for baling and putting in the barn. Air can penetrate such a small pile well enough so that the hay completes its curing while being protected from deteriorating sunlight. Then when I pile on the second cutting, it too can cure the same way, and so on for all three or four additions to the stack.
In many cases, I can mow about 10:00 AM, rake the hay into windrows the next day at about noon, and then stack the hay that late afternoon or evening. In a big, commercial field in our humid climate, to put up hay the day after mowing usually means following the mower with a multi-thousand dollar crimper and a multi-thousand dollar tedder to speed up drying, and/or a chemical treatment sprayed on the bales. In other words my cheapskate haystack is very cheap indeed.
We do have one other cost, for a plastic cap to go over the stack to protect in from downpours until it is completely built. Once the stack is finished, rounded off on top, and the hay settled down tightly, it will shed water fairly well, but until then, it is vulnerable to heavy rain. A plastic cover costs only $18 and will last ten years anyway.
Building such a stack by the little, so to speak, requires paying close attention to a few details that took me years to learn. I erect a round enclosure with two 16-foot long wire panel gates wired together, overlapping them so that the diameter inside the gates is about eight feet. I put a post about eight feet tall in the center of the enclosure to act as a mainstay to keep the stack from toppling over when the livestock are eating into it. The reason for the panels is that I am not skillful enough to lay the hay up with perfectly straight sides. With the panels we can just throw the hay in rather carelessly, at least at first— as children helping will do anyway— and the stack will have nice straight sides just like those you see in farm landscapes from past ages. Above the panels, the hay must be built up as straight as possible with forkfuls of hay around the outside first, then filling in with other forkfuls in the center. We do not tramp the hay down because that would block air movement into the curing hay. Gradually over a week’s time the hay will settle down from its own weight.
The first cutting settles to about the top of the panel with just enough hay to maintain a bit of a rounded top to the stack. That way the cap put over it sheds water rather than sinks down like a dish. Sinking down like a dish would make the beginning of your stack look like a child’s wading pool if heavy rain falls before you build the stack higher. The second cutting goes on top of the first, making sure to build the outside wall of the hay as straight up as you can and again topping it off with a little dome. It is this stage that you see in the photo. Then, before the third cutting, we widened the stack by pulling the panels out to their full circumference. We then pile hay first in the new empty space created on one side of the stack, and then with the base of the stack somewhat wider, we can build the stack higher. Then we raise the panel gate enclosure about two and half feet off the ground, allowing us to build the stack as high as we can fork hay on it from the truck bed.
Raising the panel enclosure also means that the livestock can self-feed the stack through the winter. They eat around the bottom of the stack below the panels and the stack sort of slides very slowly down the center pole until it is mostly consumed. If the panels slide down too, you have to raise them up again.
Hay stacked this way is so high in quality that livestock can live on it without any grain or protein supplement at all. A couple of these stacks will feed 5 sheep, or a horse or a cow through that part of winter when no grazing is available. Sounds like a good return on our labor to me if the alternative is expensive haymaking equipment or buying bales for five dollars each. Then figure in the profit for a family laughing and working together in the field. How much is that worth?
I just thought of one way to help save the world. Make an Olympic game out of building cheapskate haystacks.
See also Gene’s Time To Start Growing Your Own Bread