Cheapskate Haystacks


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


Ian, so good to get an update on your haystack ventures. I have experienced almost exactly the same pluses and minuses that you describe, including the fraying of the tarp. My biggest problem still is maintaining quality of the hay— just like all hay ventures. I think my problem is mostly that the plastic cover holds moist heat in too much before the hay is completely draw so I am going to take the tarp off between rains this summer for awhile, or not put it on if no heavy rains are in the forecast. Better to waste a little hay on the outside than have low quality hay inside. Gene

Well I have more pictures, and I will send them, even have some videos from the digital camera. Can show the finished stacks, good and bad, and then the condition as the cows eat into them.
The first stack made with woven wire fencing, 8ft dia, was eaten dow without moving the wire until very little was left. I just took the wire off, it’s about ruined tho. Not likely to be useable another year. The second stack, with cattle panels (not put upside down and not lifted up 2 to 3 ft at the outset, and not overlapped 2 ft so could be ecspanded, worked ok too. I had to use the loader to lift the wire, bent it a bit, but got it up enough, then used three steel fence posts to keep it there, wired in place around the circumference. The cows get down on their knees to eat under the wire. funny sight. I have to throw some hay off the top into a roundbale feeder I hauled over beside the stack, since the stack is not sliding down inside the wire. Don’t see how that will happen, but maybe if I loosen the wire…

The skids under the stacks seemed to help the curing, as did the drainage tile I put under there, between the skids. Won’t put tile vertically inside the stack, seemed unnecessary when got a look at the hay as it was eaten down. My tarp did the trick at keeping heavy rain off, but it frayed pretty bad in the wind.

All in all, a success. Thanks Gene.
PS Maybe Dave can figure out a way to patch the pictures into my account.

……also, you might want to think about salting the bottom of your stack as you start building it. This will keep it from spoiling, or so I was told, when i was a kid I just did what the old people told me.

Used to be you could buy granulated salt at the feed store. For a regular size haystack we’d put about a pound in the first yard or so of height.

You can do your haystack however you want, but I think it would shed water a little better if the crown on top was a bit steeper.

well, I didn’t hear anybody say anything about laying down some scrap lumber ( or brush ) on the ground before you start and piling the hay on top of that. Doing this will keep the hay off the ground and help it dry out better and keep it from leaching water up from the ground. Once hay starts to mildew you have to tear it apart and get that spoilt hay out of the stack before it ruins the rest of it.

Ian, to answer a couple of your questions fast. I use a tarp that has holes around the edges. I run pieces of twine or wire through the holes and tie them to the panels around the stack. After winter comes and the stack settles firmly, the tarp is hardly necessary as most of the rain will run off.
To raise the panels or woven wire, I do as you suggest. Take the two panels apart, make the diameter a little wider and then raise them up and wire them to steel fence posts put in around the stack snug up against it. If you have a pole in the center of your stack, as you do, I would be very surprised if the stack fell over in the process. It settles very firmly by winter. I want to make a wood rack that will go around the stack for the animals to eat through, but haven’t got that done yet. If the wire panels were only wider in mesh, they would work perfectly as is, without raising them up. Another idea I have is to cut out every other horizontal wire to make room to eat through. You say your panels are smaller meshed at the bottom, yes. Turn them upside down.
Yes, the sheep waste a little hay. This is not a problem for me since I am always short of mulch for the gardens and that’s what I use the waste for. You’ll be surprised though, I think. While the animals are eating, it looks like they are wasting more hay than you would like. But eventually, by spring, my sheep clean up the pile a whole lot better than I thought they were doing.

Couple more comments. I did tramp the hay down, as I built the piles, so may have degraded the whole project right there. I missed that point on prior readings of Gene’s post.
I wonder how to calculate how much hay is actually in the stack? Density is going to vary. Compared to 4ft by 4ft large round bales weighing 600lb or so and a volume of 50 cu ft, my 8ft stack has 10 times the volume and the 10 ft dia stack has 15 times.
I wonder how much wastage there will be without a proper feeder. If the stacks are about the same density as round-baled hay, the 8ft stack should be enough to feed my 8 smallish cattle (maybe 5000 lb of animal units)for 5 to 6 weeks. (eating 3% of body weight a day equals 150 lb and the 8ft stack may have 6000 lb of hay stored (tho moisture will be greater than in the roundbale, I’m going to assume about 25%, or in other words, 75% Dry matter in the stack). Am assuming 10% waste to get to the 3%.

I wonder how to get the fence lifted up the 2ft or so, to allow cattle to feed under it, since the fence is very tightly packed inside and there is no way to take it apart and ecspand the circumference. Lifting with FEL will just bend the wire ath. Less of a problem with the cattle panel, but still I’m doubtful it will slide up much at all. I could decouple the two panels and wire it back together a little bigger, but big risk of the whole thing coming down.

Ian in Dundas ON

Got two stacks completed, thanks to this blessed 7day spell of good weather here in ON. (Pictures on the way to Dave.) I made one stack with woven wire fencing (8 ft dia), one with cattle panels (10 ft dia, so 60%larger), both on skids so the hay is off the ground and both with a center pole 10 ft high, 2 ft in ground. I put drainage tile between the four skids under each stack and in the 8ft stack, three vertical tile lengths positioned on a steel fence post. (they made it harder to move the hay into the enclosure, and I was not successful in keeping the tile vertical. We’ll see if it makes a difference to quality of hay.
How to assess moisture of hay? I used the salt in a bottle method referenced by Dirk Van Loon in his 1976 book ‘The Family Cow’, a method devised by a Prof Dexter of Michigan State U (no date). Was not conclusive, and I think the hay (mostly clovers) was too humid for stacking. we’ll see much later when the cows get into it.
Still don’t know what I’ll use to cover with. Tarp will probably blow off.
They sure look purdy tho!

Ian: Send me the pictures and I can post them. -Dave

Im working on the stack concept, cuz it’s hard to find a baler for hire, and if I buy one, I’ll have to store it inside somewhere, deal with its repairs and such. Gene, you wrote about it in Contrary, All Flesh, and Small Scale Grain I believe. Not all descriptions were the same, some with cattle panels, some with page wire fencing. Here in ON, in 2009, cattle panels cost $60 each, pagewire about $.70 a foot, so right off, $120 vs $22 for the wire. Unless you have it used, lying around somewhere. But is the pagewire as easy to lift up as you describe, a couple of feet up to increase the height of the stack and allow cattle to feed under it?
You mention you’d like to ecsperiment with drainage tile to vent the stack and cure the hay better. You also say making hay for a stack needs to be about as dry as hay for baling or putting in the barn.
Have you or anyone on this list tried putting skids under the stack to assist in drying? What about running drainage tile over a couple of steel fence posts (to keep them in place) in the middle of the stack?
This article mentions a cap you buy something for $18… what sort of contraction was that?
If I could post pictures here in this blog I could show y’all what my efforts amount to.
Ian in Dundas ON
Old 99 Farm

Thanks, Gene – I researched rotating axial brushes way back in 2000 or so, and the price on one of appropriate size for a small harvester was completely overwhelming for this use. I gave it some thought and think I can build a brush using old irrigation tubing cross-drilled liberally, threaded with weed-whacker string and mounted on an axle. I’m putting together one using an old rototiller and some belts and chains… we’ll see how it works next year (I hope!).

Brad Hedges from Gene Logsdon: Brad, I just caught up with your comments from June about small scale grain raising and want to reply where I think you might see it. Your info about the stripper for harvesting grain is MOST appreciated. I hope you will keep me apprised of your efforts to build one. Gene Logsdon

A thousand dollars is a lot of money compared to two cattle panels, a tarp, and a fork…

Ryan, I used to use that buckrake for raising loose hay up into the barn loft (instead of lifting it by the forkful) as much as to scoop up the hay out of the windrow. Out in the field with the stack it seems easier to just fork the hay up on the stack out of the windrow. I still use the buckrake though to raise bales up to the barn loft, straw bales for bedding and some of hay since I still buy a little baled hay too. Gene

I have found that it is easier and more convenient to use small square bales than haystacks. Small square produce less wastage, store better (as you have to store them inside and they can breath as they aren’t packed too tight). You can purchase an old mower conditionier for and baler for under 1000 each, and you can usually find a rake for under 500. We purchased our baler for 800 and it came with a kicker that launches the bale into a wagon we built for about 200. With the large round bales you seem to get a lot of wastage, not to mention weather damage if they are stored uncovered. Plus, if you only have a few animals, a round bale fed out of a feeder will sit for days or even weeks getting rained on and sun bleached, nearly to the point of total wastage.
Gene, I seem to recall reading in one of you books about a buck rake type device your son made that you were using on your tractor. Are you still using it?

A relatively competent mower can cut about an acre in about six hours with a properly fitted and sharpened Austrian style scythe. A skilled mower with experience and one of the longest blades might manage two acres in a day. Mowing with a scythe is a pleasant way to spend a morning and even less expensive than mowing with a tractor. You can also use the scythe to mow ditches, reap grain, clear weeds under fruit trees and other places that the tractor can’t go or would be unsafe to drive on. It also has the benefit of putting the hay into a windrow as you mow it.

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