An Offbeat Way To Make Good Hay

From Gene Logsdon

An intrepid new garden farmer has been asking me lately about the details of making hay. I can tell by his questions that he is very intelligent but has never experienced the culture of the hay field. Until now, it had never occurred to me how difficult the situation has to be for him. I was unceremoniously handed a hay fork about seventy years ago, and in a sense never let go. What I know I could never have learned on my own in a short time, no matter how much instruction was available from the printed word. Only by working in the shadow of father and two grandfathers did I learn, sort of by cultural osmosis. But what makes the whole business so enormously difficult is realizing that even after all that, I still don’t know much. Haymaking is mostly art and just a wee bit of  science thrown in to make it look, pardon the pun, cut and dried.

I just finished making some hay in a way that most farmers would describe as “strange.”  I’ve made hay this way now for three years in a row with excellent results so I’m not afraid to pass the idea along even if it is a little offbeat. To appreciate it, however, you need to remember how hay is made these days. A very expensive disk-type mower now cuts hay at twelve miles mph or faster, squishes the moisture out of the hay stems in a very expensive attached crimper, and lays the squished hay in a fluffy windrow, all in one operation. A few hours later, another expensive machine, called a tedder, fluffs the drying hay up again, so that it dries even faster. Then, usually two days after mowing,  a tractor pulling  one of the latest very expensive new balers speeds  down the windrow spitting out bales faster than a kid spitting out seeds from a slice of watermelon. If the hay is still not quite dry, the baler senses the fact and automatically sprays a very expensive liquid on each bale  that almost magically keeps the hay from molding as it finishes drying in the bale. All this is wonderful technology, but if you can’t sell the bales, standard sized, for four dollars a bale or so,  you are losing money.

Until three years ago, I believed  that we small-time folk, being unable financially to buy the new haymaking equipment, had to use a sickle bar mower to cut hay. When my old sickle bar mower decided to die on me, in desperation I cut the hay with my ancient rotary mower. I had hitherto balked at that idea because the rotary shreds the hay too finely, or so I thought, to be windrowed with my old side delivery rake. And besides, I thought, finely-chopped hay was too hard to handle, even with a hand hay fork. And besides, my old coot of a rotary mower would have a hard time mowing a heavy stand of red clover, my preferred hay forage.

It so happened, however, that the hay I intended to cut was a stand of Alice white clover, which is a much daintier plant that red clover, and is, in fact, not recommended for hay but for pasture. It does not yield enough tonnage to satisfy the demands of commercial haymaking. But my old bones did not want to make a whole bunch of hay in one cutting anyway. My aim was quality, not quantity. So I mowed it, or more correctly, I shredded it, with my rotary about eleven o’clock  in the morning after the dew was gone. The mower threw the chopped hay out the side of it in a fine layer. To my surprise, that clover was dry enough to bring in the very next day. It dried fast because there was not much bulk there anyway and it did not have those heavier stems of red clover or alfalfa (which the animals don’t much like anyway) that dry only slowly unless run through a crimper. My ancient hayrake could rake the chopped clover fairly well, all things considered, rolling three mower swaths into one windrow. By about three  o’clock the next afternoon— hardly twenty four hours from mowing— I  could hand-fork it from windrow to pickup truck, using a bigger fodder fork rather than a hay fork, haul it to the stack and pile it up— finished  before the sun went down. If the hay wasn’t always perfectly dry, it could finish curing in the stack better than in a bale. This clover was exposed to only a very minimum amount of sunlight and only one night of dew to harm it. Being of highest quality, it is equal to twice the amount of only average hay so even though I am making only a small amount at one time, it is more than meets the eye.

This method will work for red clover or alfalfa too if the growth is on the sparse side, as is the case when I renew a stand by broadcast-seeding into the old clover sod. Often the new seeding will not be heavy— not “good” enough by commercial standards but just right for my sheep.

The moral of the story is that what is the “right” way by commercial standards can be the “wrong” way for a garden farmer.


My wife and I raise Angora goats and this year we decided to try putting up up some hay by hand just to see how it would come out. Given that most of our acreage (20 acres in northern Ohio) are covered by trees or are already dedicated to pasturage the only area we had to mow was between the trees in the orchard. So I ordered up a scythe and once the grass got to a reasonable height (a bit less than knee height) we got to mowing. I’d guess we put up about 500 pounds of hay – cut it, spread it by hand, let it dry in the sun, etc. After a few days of drying like this we piled it on a tarp, dragged it over to the barn, and lifted it up to the hay floor. Now the kids like to go up there, lift the tarp we covered the hay with (to keep the light from it – skylights in the barn keep it well lit), and inhale the sweet smell of fresh hay. Smells a lot nicer than the baled stuff we buy and the goats seem to really like it, although they’re only getting samples for now – saving the good stuff for kidding season. The only thing I’d do differently is to make MORE OF IT, which we’ll do next year. Seems like making hay by hand is a bit like making maple syrup – a fair amount of work, but the results are worth it.

    Bob, there is nothing like the smell of hay made right. I have been waiting for a chance to talk to someone who actually cuts hay with a scythe. I’ve done some scything of stiff stuff like ripe wheat but how the heck do you swing that thing in wavy grass to make it cut? I’ve been told that the secret is all in having a super sharp blade. Is that right? Gene Logsdon

Check this site out for information on using a scythe (The right way)for cutting hay.
Especially look under Site Contents the article “Making hay on Fairy Hill farm”. It talks about several different ways of making hay stacks. Lots of other good stuff as well.
Regards from Canada,

Bluegrass is too short in its succulent stage to cut for hay. That’s probably why your neighbors stared at you. But all things considered, bluegrass is the best pasture grass. Lots of pasture farmers disagree with that but long long experience has convinced me. All my fields, pasture and hay fields have a mixture of grasses and clovers. They all dry about the same. If you grow sorghum sudan grass (I definitely don’t recommend it) or have a really heavy stand of red clover or alfalfa, it will take longer to dry. But by and large, grasses and legumes in mixdtures will dry out about the same, the grasses a little sooner than the legumes but no big deal. I would not try to do ten acres at a time with your equipment. Cut one acre and see how it goes. Good luck. Gene

From what I’ve read, not all your pastures are legume, that you sometimes hay your mixed bluegrass/legume pastures. How does that dry and store with this process? We fertilized a 10 acre field that used to be in corn and had our neighbor farmer drill a mixture of seed (timothy, ryes, trefoil, red clover, some of this and that, but up here they looked at me like I was nuts for even asking about blue grass) with a cover of oats so that next year we can turn out our cattle, goats, and hopefully some sheep and maybe even 2 draft horses on it. But even so, it will need to be hayed at some point as well as the other 10 acre field that has been in continuous hay w/o lime or fertilization or re-seeding for at least 15 years. So we’re thinking about using the brush hog flail mower on the back of our garden tractor and trying some of your hay stacks. It may not be practical to try so many acres with a brush-hog, so if you (or anyone else) has any advice for us novice homesteaders, it would be appreciated.


Ian, ABout three inches high. What I have cut for hay so far is about 10 inches tall. Would cut 12 inches or with a newer rotary and sharp blades I would go to 15 without a qualm. My cut off point (what a pun) would be not the height of the clover but whether or not it was getting too coarse to dry fast. That’s why I’d rather cut finer shorter hay— the stems dry faster. I worried about losing clover leaves but actually not many are lost. They sort of bunch up in the shredded mass rather than fall loose on the ground. You should not cut clover much after September 5 (down here), actually, unless you are going to plow up the field for a cultivated crop, because that is the time, after August haymaking that the plants grow back and store energy in their roots for next years growth. You can safely cut again after about Oct. 10 (down here in Ohio) but of course, it is very difficult to get hay to dry and cure that late in the year. All experienced farmers I know think it is better not to make hay in the fall and that you will make up the difference with a bigger hay crop the next year. This is especially true with alfalfa which you generally hope will last five or six years anyway. Unless, as I said, you are going to plow the field up for corn the next year. Even then, plowing under that September/October growth will probably do more good that the hay will. As I keep saying, “it depends.”

Gene, your sickle mower has died, so are you going to make all hay in the future with the rotary mower? What height is the blade(s) on the rotary? How high a stand would you try this way? Don’t you lose a lot of the clover leaf in the shredding?
I made quite good hay for my first time this year, with benefit of no rain at all while I was cutting (sicklebar), windrowing, and putting up in stack and mow. Got finished about Sept 15th, now I wonder, how late should I try for a third cut on these mostly clover paddocks?
Intrepid Farmer in Dundas ON

Trevor and Jean, pretty sure spring wheat or oats would grow in your region although I’ve never been there. Sometimes (often) in any area there are local little micro climates that will grow what is not acclimated to the area in general. And vice versa. Whatever the general info says, you should reserve judgement until you are familiar with your land. Or as the old saying has it, it takes seven years to get truly acquainted with a farm. Good luck. Gene

Dear Gene,

Just finished your book, Small Scale Grain Raising. Stayed up half the night – it was a page turner, who’d of thought! Anyways the reason I am emailing is because we recently bought 40 acres in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, elevation 3,000 feet, latitude 52 degrees. I have been looking for information about growing grains at high altitudes. Obviously barley in Tibet at very high altitudes..wondered if you had any suggestions/resources.

Congratulations on your book, look forward to reading more of your work.


Trevor & Jean

I hear that some of you all are talking about using a scythe to cut hay, but I don’t hear anything about shocking hay.

It’s hard to cut a whole meadow in one day with a scythe, and even if you do, what you cut in the morning is going to be cured a lot better than the very last hay you cut.

The classic solution to this is the shock. After your hay has cured in the windrow, pretty much, you build a shock. Usually about chest high or so, rounded on top, no timber for a base, just a little pile of hay, but be careful to lay it with the “grain” of your stalks crisscrossed for strength.

The shock will protect your hay from the elements while you’re working a big meadow, which may take a few days. If it rains, and your hay is in a shock, you can just tear the top off the shock and fluff it up and let it dry in the wind, usually the hay underneath will still be dry. Shocking hay is a good way to go if you can’t be sure of having several days of sunny weather in a row. Also, leaving it overnight, shocking hay will keep the dew off better.

People who bale their hay don’t build shocks, that I’ve ever seen, they just run the baler right up the windrow. Building a hay shock I guess is kind of a lost step in the process. We built hay shocks even though we had a mower.

Jboy, thanks for your info. How did you haul the stack to the loft?

One other thing here: I hear some people are using plastic tarps to protect their hay. If it was me I’d put off doing that as long as I could for the same reason. Tarps will keep rain off, but they won’t let the haystack, or shock, or what ever you got breathe good. Once it is cured good it will tend to shed water and not absorb it very much at all.

If a haystack is shaped right it will shed rain pretty good. People used to roof their houses with straw you know. I guess some people know this, but I’ll say it anyway, a good haystack is shaped like a pear. Small at the very bottom, then it gets bigger so it will have a kind of an eve to it and shed water, then it gets smaller at a pretty steep angle so that the water will run off it not into it. When you get close to the top, we always took some hay that was cured real good and kind wrapped it up in a wreath around the stack pole so that there will be some especially dense hay at the top so that the water would want to shed to the sides but on the very top, we’d pack it on kind of looser so it could breathe.

As far as getting the shape exactly right, it’s pretty much of an art to estimate how much hay you got left to work with as you build the bast, the ledge, the slope, and the top.

What we always did was fill the loft and build a stack and when the loft was empty we just hauled the stack into the loft.

About putting loose hay in the barn………that’s the way it used to be done. Works good as long as the hay is good and dry. Somebody here had a picture of a min-haystack that they’d built that looked a bit green to me, I think I’d let that dry a bit more before I put that in a barn.

The big problem with putting hay in a barn is that if it ain’t dry enough it’ll want to cook. Spontaneous combustion can be a real danger if the hay is too green. I thought I’d mention this since nobody else has rather than assume everybody knew it.

Your article on hay is very timely for me. My husband and I just had our first crop on a very small, hand-scythed scale, and as city mice learning to be country mice, we were wondering how to work on a slightly larger scale.
I am reading your book Small-Scale Grain Raising, which I learned about when ordering parts for my scythe from Scythe Supply.
It’s wonderful!
I wrote about it in my own blog about what my husband and I are doing and learning as we turn our hands to 44 acres in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, and I added your blog to my list of great links because I know I’ll be coming back here again and again. Check it out at
Thanks again for the blog and the book! They are truly helpful.
Denise Thornton

Sarah, you are not clueless. Your are demonstrating that for the individual family intent on providing for itself, you can do effectively and at low cost, what even the Amish cannot do becuase even they are slaves to the money economy.

I played with haymaking this year a little, using a rake, a pitchfork, and a wheelbarrow, and a pickup. It made me laugh as I was walking back and forth, hauling forkfuls of loose hay into the barn to see the Amish neighbors using an elevator to load wagonloads into their barn. Who knew that the Amish would be more technologically advanced than I? Or maybe it was just that they are more experienced, and I am clueless (but cheerful.)

Gene, thanks. Going from hay barn to haystack seems like a nice, natural transition for both farm and farmer– as the farmer ages and the farm’s soil structure and fertility get better.

Joanna, thanks for sharing your experiences. You make a good example of how a backyarder can use (and not use) farm methods of larger farms.

Kelly: forking loose hay into a barn loft is an excellent way to preserve good hay, feed it, and put the manure from it back on the land. Better than haystacks. The reason I have gone to haystacks is that it is less work than forking hay into the loft. We did that for many years…until Carol, my wife, said she just wasn’t up to the physical work of it. That’s when I went to stacks. Not only are small stacks less laborious but then the cows and sheep eating from them deposit their manure directly into the pasture roundabout, thus saving me the labor of pitching that manure into a spreader and hauling it out. Keep working your little paradise. You are engaged in the very best work of saving the earth… and it’s fun too. Gene

Before we got cows, we had too much grass (on our tiny 1.25 lot). So we used a scythe to cut it, borrowed a neighbor’s hay fork to ‘ted’ it, and windrowed it with a garden rake. When it was dry, we forked it onto a tarp and dragged it to a corner of one paddock. We heaped it up inside a stock panel, covered it with a tarp, and fed it to the goats all winter.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great way to get familiar with the scythe, and I loved all the conversation with the neighbors who had never seen hay brought in this way.

Now that we have our little pasture fenced into grazing paddocks, I doubt we’ll need to hay again, but it’s a good skill to have.


Gene, thank you for your farming advice. As beginner farmers, your writings are a giant help to my husband and me. Something I’ve been wondering about the cheapskate haystack: What about nutrient capture during winter when soil is dormant, especially for burned out farms? Our farm’s soil had been badly abused by continuous grain farming. It’s compacted and needs all the nutrients it can get. We like the idea of nutrient capture by feeding hay in a roofed hay shed during the cold season, making compost out of the manured bedding, then returning these nutrients to the soil in summer. How could a contrary farmer feed hay in a hay barn without expensive baling equipment? Does forking the dried hay in loose result in low quality hay? Are we mistaken in believing a hay shed is super-valuable for nutrient capture?

Thank you—any advice you have is greatly appreciated!

P.S. Our little paradise is about 20 acres of sandy soil in southern Maryland.

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