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Haymaking tools for the small farm: these implements and tips make haymaking practical and economical, no matter your acreage.

You've finally got that acreage in the country, and, whether for profit or pleasure, you want to get some livestock out into the field. During the warm season, those grazers will feed themselves. But what about harvesting some of that grass for the other half of the year? Some folks find it easier to buy hay locally, while others prefer the independence and sense of accomplishment of making their own.

For small-scale endeavors, making your own hay can be challenging, as most of the haying equipment on the market is designed for larger tractors and expensive implements. You could buy used equipment, but you won't want to spend your time working on worn-out, half-rusted junk--you've got hay to make! You could also ask a neighboring farmer to harvest your hay, either for pay or for a portion of the crop. However, farmers cut their own hay when it's at peak ripeness, and getting farmers to do this for small acreages is increasingly rare. Besides that, you'll likely be left with 500-pound round bales, which you won't be able to move without a compact tractor or a bale spear on your pickup.

Fortunately, several good options can make small-scale forage harvest practical and economically feasible. When choosing the best method for your operation, consider the acreage you're harvesting, the terrain type, and how much time you have at your disposal.

1 to 2 Acres

Scythes. Yes, I mean swinging a good old-fashioned scythe, like your great-grandparents used to do. For very small operations and limited acreage, this time-honored cutting method still works great, and you'll only need to invest about $250 to $400. Plus, you'll have peace and quiet, no petroleum exhaust or noise, the meditative rhythm of the scythe, and a good workout, too.

Crucial to its effectiveness and your comfort is to choose a scythe that fits your body size and the material you're cutting. European-style scythe blades offer a variety of blade weights, lengths, and angles, which a good scythe dealer can help match correctly to your application. The scythe handle, or "snath," is important to fit correctly. A few American producers make handles for the European-style blades--whether basic, nonadjustable models or deluxe models that are adjustable for your height and build.

You'll also need to learn scythe maintenance because a dull scythe will make you want to pitch it when the only thing you should be pitchin' is hay! For regular maintenance, sharpen with a whetstone, which will take less than a minute each time and will keep your blade sharp for minimum cutting effort. Occasionally, you can peen the blade edge, which is more challenging and not necessary but will extend the life of the blade. You can use a special scythepeening hammer and anvil for this, or a machined peening jig that you strike with a small ball-peen or utility hammer.

Learning proper scything technique is critical as well, or you'll wear yourself out quickly and become frustrated. The basic principle of proper scything is that the blade slices the grass rather than chops it. Swing the scythe with a full-body motion in a large arc, pointing the blade almost directly into the swing. The difference between the leading edge and the heel of the blade is usually no more than a few inches, so that's how much you're cutting with each stroke and how far you'll step forward with each backswing. This kind of stroke distributes the cut over much of the blade surface, which greatly minimizes cutting effort.

Most folks don't want to tackle 10 acres with a scythe, but 1 acre, or possibly 2, is reasonable--for a competent scythe user, that'll be one to three days of work.

You'll probably want to use manual gathering and loose-storage methods. A good hand-held hay rake will go a long way in gathering hay, and you can either loose-stack the hay in a barn loft or stack it right in the field. (This requires learning some technique.) Carting hay into the barn means more labor, but you'll lose virtually no hay to the weather or rot. Stacking it in the field costs you less labor, but you'll lose some hay to oxidation. Some folks rig up hand-powered baling machines. (You can find plans to build them online.)

3 to 15 Acres

Walk-behind tractors. A walk-behind tractor is an agricultural-quality, two-wheeled motive power unit with a power take-off (PTO), and it's capable of operating many different implements for use on a small farm. Depending on your dealer, you'll find between 20 and 45 implements available. As one would hope, the price is a fraction of that of a four-wheel tractor.

Many Americans don't even know that walk-behind tractors exist, as these machines have been largely out of the American farming scene for a generation or two. Walk-behind tractors haven't lost popularity in Europe, where farms are smaller and steeper, particularly in the mountainous regions. Europe boasts about 30 brands of walk-behind tractors, half of them produced in Italy. The United States imports two Italian brands, contributing to the comeback that walk-behind tractors are making in North America as the popularity of small-scale, local, and organic farming blossoms.

The most affordable walk-behind tractor implement for forage harvesting is the sickle bar mower (also called a "cutter bar mower"). Sickle bars have been around for over 100 years, and they're the most efficient mechanized mower on the market for power consumed versus volume of material cut. A walk-behind tractor with a sickle bar implement can cut up to an acre of hay per hour, so you can make good time mowing compared with a scythe. Some dedicated walk-behind sickle bar mowers are on the market, but they're typically not durable enough for agricultural use and don't accept other implements.

If you have a limited amount of time and enough hay to economically justify it, you can invest more in implements for your walk-behind tractor and get it to do more for you. A PTO-driven hay-rake implement, which quickly gathers the hay into windrows or piles, is a major labor- and time-saver, even for folks who are putting up hay manually (raking takes as little as 30 minutes per acre). Even more powerful, a hay-baler implement for the walk-behind tractor can produce 40- to 60-pound round bales at a rate of a bale per minute. There are no square-balers for walk-behind tractors, as round-balers are much more power-efficient per cubic foot of bale size.

If you're in a damp climate where properly drying hay is difficult, or if you're interested in the most nutritious feed for your livestock, you could even invest in a bale wrapper to fit your walk-behind tractor so you can make haylage.

To make haylage, cut the hay before it's fully mature (before seed heads are viable). Then, bale it while the moisture content is still about 45 percent. (Dry hay is usually baled at about 15 percent moisture content). A bale wrapper will wrap the bale tightly in plastic film, squeeze the air out, and seal it. Haymaking typically leads to a loss of nutrition from drying, but in haylage, fermentation preserves more nutrients. Making haylage does take more time and costs more per bale to produce.

While the baler is the most expensive piece of this setup (it costs more than twice what the walk-behind tractor does), the entire cost of a new walk-behind tractor and "haying" package--from $2,700 to $17,000--is typically less than half of the least expensive, new four-wheel tractor-based package. Plus, bales produced by the walk-behind tractor are easy to handle by hand (of course, if you have a four-wheel tractor system, you already have the tractor to move bales around). They're also about the same weight as most conventional square bales (with the added perk that they roll!), and they shed moisture when left round side up in a field, the way full-sized round bales do. So it's fine if you don't pick them up and put them in the barn right away and it rains, whereas square bales will be ruined if they get wet. Stack the small round bales in a barn like firewood (on their sides), or like soup cans (on their ends). For good airflow, stack them like firewood, as long as you have a sturdy barn that will take the outward pressure as the bales are stacked up. If your barn looks like mine--like it doesn't know quite which way it wants to fall--use the soup can method.

More Than 15 Acres

Four-wheel tractor implements sized for mini-farms do exist. High-quality equipment in this genre is manufactured in Europe and Japan, and some importers here in the United States bring them in and stock parts for them. Small hay mowers (sickle-bar, drum-type, and disk-type), small hay rakes, and balers are available for tractors rated 20 horsepower and up with a category 1 three-point hitch, 540 rpm PTO, and remote hydraulics (not always needed for haymaking). Expect to invest $20,000 or more for new haying equipment and $15,000 or more for the tractor. If you already own a compact tractor, or if your ground is too much to tackle with a walk-behind, this could be an avenue worth exploring.

The bottom line? You can effectively harvest forage from small acreages with the correct tools and techniques for your needs and terrain. So while the sun shines, get out there and make hay!

Joel Dufour grew up on a small farm in Indiana. He started Earth Tools, North America's largest sales and service depot of walk-behind tractors and related implements, in 1993. Joel and his family live near Frankfort, Kentucky, in an off-grid, 900-squarefoot home they built by hand.


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Dufour, Joel
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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