Hay history

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ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. – As long as farmers have been working the land and raising livestock, making hay has been one of agriculture’s standard chores. But if you think it’s a tough job now, you should try doing it the way the pioneers did – completely by hand.
Visitors to Pennsylvania’s Ag Progress Days Aug. 15-17 got an inside look at the history of making hay and an up-close view of just how much work it took. The demonstration, 300 Years of Haymaking in Pennsylvania, 1640-1940, was based on the research of John Baylor, professor of agronomy at Penn State and chair of the 2006 hay exhibit committee at the Pasto Agricultural Museum.
It’s easy to understand why making hay was one of the most dreaded chores on the farm in the early 1700s. It had to be hand-cut with a sickle or scythe and hand-raked with a wooden rake or fork. On a good day, a farmer could harvest 1 acre of hay.
Not enough. Believe it or not, this was an improvement over hay production from 1640 to the early 1700s. During that time, animals typically foraged on native grasses in the woods. Although swamps and marshes provided coarse hay for the winter, there wasn’t enough and cows often starved to death.
In the early 1700s, red clover, white clover and timothy from Europe were introduced for hay and pasture. Rarely planted at first, the seeds were eventually sewn on unplowed land or mixed with manure used as fertilizer.
From 1750-1800, hay was mostly made from timothy and red clover, but orchard grass, bluegrass and perennial ryegrass were also planted in Pennsylvania for the first time. Alfalfa was introduced during this time as well, but it was an unsuccessful crop due to soil acidity, little inoculation and low soil fertility.
According to Baylor’s research, it wasn’t until 1790 that there was a significant increase in hay production. The beef market also got a boost around this time and cattle ate the best hay Pennsylvania farmers could produce.
Gaining ground. Big advances in farm equipment during the last decade of the 18th century led to an upswing in U.S. hay acreage.
In 1820, the U.S. saw its first mowing machine, but it was not successful. Around the same time, the first horse-drawn wooden rake was introduced. The rake hit a peak of popularity from 1835-1840 and for the first time in agriculture’s history, hay wasn’t always made entirely by hand.
By 1840, clover and timothy hay had claimed the top spot as one of Pennsylvania’s most profitable crops.
Although haymaking had taken a turn for the better, it still wasn’t a very desirable job on the farm. Seeding was generally done by hand and the grass was usually cut with a scythe. Despite the invention of the horse-drawn wooden rake, hay was typically raked by hand.
But a better world was coming for Pennsylvania farmers. Beginning around 1840, horses and oxen took over work that was historically done by people.
Mechanical revolution. In 1840, seeding tools improved and the steel-toothed dump rake was invented. Horse-drawn mowers were getting better and better and by 1845 hay makers were successful in compressing hay for transport.
Using horse power to cut hay allowed farmers to harvest seven to 10 times more than they could by hand.
In addition to improvements in the field, Baylor found that haymakers also saw progress in other areas, as barns were built with hay storage and hay feeding in mind.
The steel-toothed riding dump rake was introduced in 1860 and that decade also saw the invention of the hay tedder.
In 1865, barn hay forks were developed and in 1875 hay loaders and steam-powered engines were on the scene.
Progress in the hay industry continued with the introduction of the side delivery hay rake in 1900. Also during that year, Pennsylvania produced its first alfalfa crop and five years later, the animal-powered Panama stationary hay press was invented.
Tractors. In 1905, the first gasoline tractor was introduced.
During the first half of the 20th century, alfalfa acreage in Pennsylvania increased from 52 acres in 1900 to more than 250,000 acres in 1940, according to Baylor.
By 1925, tractors were beginning to replace horse power and some farms were able to get electricity. During the next 15 years, the hay-making industry would see hay dehydration, a mower-crusher designed to speed up field curing, hay crop silage and the first automatic field string baler.
Progress since the mid-1900s has advanced even more rapidly and today’s haymaking equipment is a far cry from sickles, hand rakes and horses. And while 300 years of advancements have made haymaking a more bearable job, imagine what the next 300 years might bring.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Former reporter Janelle Skrinjar wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2005 to 2009. More Stories by Janelle Skrinjar

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