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Bringing In The Hay

For most people childhood and adolescence are special times in their lives in which they gather images and memories that will be a part of them for the rest of lives. The memories from childhood and adolescence each have their own special character. The time of childhood is unlike any other time in our life; the time of adolesence is the borderland between the child that was and the adult to be. So it was with me.

I was raised on a ranch in South Dakota, some twelve miles from the town of Highmore, population then of 1100 people and 11 churches, typical of a rural America that has faded away. When I was 14 we built a house a mile south of town. It was a big move. As a child I seldom saw other people except my family and the teacher and students at the one room country school I attended.

As a child I played and went to school. When I became an adolescent I became a working hand, helping my father with the work of the ranch. If I had followed the path marked out for me I would have become a farmer like my father and those first years would have been the beginning of a lifetime as a farmer. I didn’t follow that path. Those years are a unique part of my life, unlike any that followed; they hold a unique place in my memories.

A major part of that work was bringing in the hay.

South Dakota seasons

South Dakota has four seasons – Blizzard, Melt, Hot, and Harvest. In Blizzard season you feed cattle, break ice in their watering place, and stay inside as much as possible. Blizzard is a good season for sharpening up your board games. When I was ten I was given a five year diary as a Christmas present. I filled in about two weeks of it. Some years later we came across it and looked at it with interest to see what young Richard had to say about life, the universe, and everything. There wasn’t much. Most of the entries read “My sister was a brat. It blizzarded. We played monopoly.” So much for Blizzard season.

In Melt season all of the snow that accumulated during Blizzard melts. There is water everywhere, little streams running through the draws and across the country roads. South Dakota has wetlands. They show up in melt season and are found in the middle of fields that need to be planted. Melt season is important because this is the time of the year when grass turns green and grows. It was not until I came East that I learned that grass could be green in other seasons than Melt.

My mother claims that grass is sometimes green at other times of the year. She is my mother. I cannot doubt her. I will note, however, that she has lived in South Dakota a lot longer than I ever did.

Hot season (also known as Drought) is the season when the crops fail. South Dakota calls itself the Coyote state; this is not a reference to the local politicians which are an entirely different species of varmit. The state motto used to be the Sunshine state; wits remarked that it was the kind of sunshine that vulcanized rubber. As the old saying goes, you make hay while the sun shines; it does and we did.

Harvest season is when you plow the failed crops into the ground and go to the bank for another loan except for the one year in ten when you get rain and actually get a crop. Wheat doesn’t do too badly; however rocks are more reliable year in and year out.

Cattle and crops

In our part of the country farmers do a mixture of dirt farming and raising cattle. Dirt farming consists of plowing fields, dragging them, planting, fertilizing and (for corn) weeding them. This is followed by hoping for rain in middle Hot which mostly doesn’t happen.

In places like Iowa they pen cattle up in feed lots and stuff them with lots of corn. South Dakota cattle are grass fed. In ye olde days corn fed beef was rated higher because it is marbled with fat. Nowadays, in these health conscious days, grass fed beef is rated higher because it is leaner. Buy South Dakota Beef! (Commercial)

During Melt, Hot, and Harvest you keep cattle in pastures. Cattle aren’t too bright but they are smart enough to figure out how to eat grass. During Blizzard, however, the grass is under several feet of snow so the farmers put up hay during Hot and feed it to the cattle during Blizzard. That’s what this essay is about – putting up hay.

Mowing hay

I suppose most of my readers have seen people on tractors mowing grass along the sides of super highways. That’s the kind of mowers we used. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at one of those mowers closely but they go like this. There is a rigid bar and a moving bar. The moving bar has little triangular plates with serrated edges riveted to it. The fixed bar has pieces called guards fastened to it. These have pointed ends that stick out into the grass and guide it into the spaces between the guards. They also have serrated plates that the moving bar rides on. The grass gets caught between the fixed and moving serrated plates and gets cut.

Mowing is a brain dead occupation – almost. You drive around and around a piece of hay land until all of the grass is cut. Square patches are fun because there is a trick to cutting square corners. The tractor has separate brakes for each wheel. You brake the inside wheel and the tractor pivots around the wheel; time it right and you’ve turned a square corner.

There is one other piece of equipment you need for haying – the rake. The chap you see mowing grass along the super highway is just cutting it; he isn’t making hay. If cut the grass and just let it lay there it isn’t of much use. What you need for making hay is a rake trailing the tractor to gather up the grass as it’s cut. The object is to gather the cut grass up into windrows (rows of piled up hay) to be gathered up later on.

And it is later on. You don’t make hay with green grass. If you pile up freshly cut green grass in a stack it will either rot or it will spontaneously combust. Neither result will feed cattle. You have to leave it out for a week or two to let it dry out in the sun. You hope it doesn’t rain while it is out there drying. (Not usually a problem in South Dakota.) A light rain won’t hurt – the rain mostly runs off the windrow.

There are two types of rake. One is the rotary rake which leaves a continuous windrow trailing behind you. This is particularly useful if you are baling hay (see below). The disadvantage is that the size of windrow varies depending on how thick the grass is. The other kind, which is what we mostly used, is a straight rake. It leaves a windrow which is at right angles to your path. You dump the hay that it is gathering by manually pulling a rope. The advantage is that you can control the size of the windrow; the disadvantage is that you have to control it manually.

So there you are driving a tractor around and around in a big circle and pulling a rope every so often. I spent a lot of time driving a tractor around a big circle. As I said, it’s not a very intellectually demanding activity. I used to daydream a lot. I made up a lot of bad science fiction stories. (The wordly knowledge of South Dakota farm boys is distinctly limited – they were very bad science fiction stories.)

There is one little catch to all of this. Mowing does require a fair amount of attention. It does not do to drive a tractor into a hole or a rock. Grassland has rocks in it. Serrated steel plates do not cut rock – they break. They can be replaced on the spot; break too many and you have to go back to the shop. Fathers do not approve of absent minded sons breaking equipment. Likewise they do not approve of absent minded sons forgetting to pull the rake rope thereby creating oversized windrows. Day dreaming sons should pay better attention to what they are doing. I did my best, such as it was.

I spent a lot of time mowing. One nice thing about mowing is that you are alone on the open prarie. You get to know the land. It isn’t just flat, it is rolling. You get to know its individuality, the shape of the land. With field work (except harvesting) you are not as close to the land; you are working with dirt and plants.


There are two ways to handle hay. One is to handle it as loose hay, the other is as bales. To bale hay you need a special machine called a baler (surprise). The front end of the thing scoops up the windrow. The hay is cut and compressed into a bale (a chunk of hay about 1’x1’x2′) and metal bands are fastened around it to hold it together. (The bales may use twine or wire instead, whence baling wire.) Once the hay is baled you go out in the hayland with a wagon or a truck and throw the bales onto the wagon using baling hooks. Throwing bales around is an art form in itself and is right good exercise.

Loose hay

A lot of hay is baled these days, particularly if it is going to be sold. However baling does require a baler which is an expensive piece of machinery. We handled our hay as loose hay. What you do with loose hay is to go out in the hayland with a hay wagon and fill it up with hay. Then you haul the wagon back to where the stack is being built and unload it onto the stack.

The wagons that we hauled hay in were called hayracks. I don’t why – it may have had something to do with the way the were constructed.

In days of yore before mechanization men used to pitch hay by hand with pitchforks into the hayrack and then pitch it off of the hayrack onto the stack. This is a very slow and tedious way to do things. That’s the way they did things when 90% of the people were farmers.

What we did was to use a booster buck (TM). One of the many meanings of “buck” is to lift up a quantity of stuff, hay in this instance. A booster buck is a contraption that fits on the front end of a tractor; it has about a dozen wooden teeth about six feet long. It can be raised and lowered. When you are gathering hay you lower it to the ground and run the tractor along the windrows, gathering hay on top of the teeth. When you get a full load of hay on the buck you raise it up, go over to hayrack and dump the hay into it. There are quite a variety of these gadgets. They have different names but the principle is the same.

The thing about loose hay is that it is loose. If you just pile it up in a hayrack that hayrack is mostly going to be filled with air. Hauling around wagons full of air is not a good way to put up hay. So what you do is have somebody in the hayrack with a pitchfork who spreads the hay around to get all the edges and corners filled and to tramp it down. That was me. I stood in the wagon and spread the hay; my father ran the buck and filled the hayrack.

Spreading hay is a dirty job. Hay has dirt on it, both from rain (it’s amazing how dirty rain is) and from the ground it was sitting on. Spreading hay is a dirty job but someone had to do it. That someone was me.

To and fro

In lusher parts of the country grass grows thick and green. In South Dakota it grows thin and brown. The places where we cut grass was a fair piece from the buildings where we put up the hay stacks. So we had to pull the hayracks from the hay land to the buildings. My father would drive the tractor and I would sit in the middle of the hay on top of one of the hayracks.

This was fine. This was excellent. It was the best part of the job. One of the real merits of physical labor is that it gives you a real appreciation for just doing nothing. The sun was hot and the world was quiet. I would shut my eyes and daydream. I was real good at day dreaming.

We had two hayracks, one painted red and one painted green. I know this doesn’t matter to you but it mattered to me. The red one was the old one, the green one was the new one. I remember when the green one was built. It was a big deal. Change doesn’t happen very fast on a farm; anything new that happens is a big deal.

We didn’t mow all of our pastures. We mowed the Jones quarter, the northeast quarters of the East and West pastures, the draws in the west part of the East pasture, and the township roads. My mother said I should mention this.

Unloading a hayrack

So here we were back at the stack being built (all too soon for yours truly who had been enjoying his doze in the sun) with hayracks full of hay which had to be moved onto the stack. The trusty booster buck was of no use here – it could dump hay into the hayrack but it couldn’t undump it out. Pitching the hay out would have taken approximately forever. What we did was sort of clever.

Picture, if you will, the haystack under construction. It is about twice as wide as the hayrack and a lot longer. The hay has been moved about so that the edges of the stack are higher than the middle. What we did was roll the entire contents of the hayrack all the way up the stack. How did we do this neat little trick?

A haystack is two hayloads wide. My father told my mother that it was one and a half hay loads wide which makes no sense whatsoever. My mother swallowed this until she realized that he was b.s.ing her. My father was very good at b.s.ing with a straight face. I take after my father.

In the hayrack there were two loops of rope tied to a ring. The ring is at the top front of the hayrack; the rope loops lay across the bottom going all the way to back of the hayrack, carefully laid out so that they form four parallel lines. When the hayrack is filled the hay goes on top of the ropes.

Now we take two long ropes and run them across the top of the stack, lengthwise in the direction that we are going to roll the hay. On the wagon end of the stack each long rope is tied to the end of a loop. On the other side of the stack the ropes are tied to something solid. There’s one other thing we need, a long steel cable. We run that over the top of the stack, over the top of hay in the hayrack, and hook it to that iron ring. Now we take the tractor to the other end of the stack, hook it onto the cable, and pull away. The hay clumps together and rolls right up the middle of the stack.

Neat. It’s an old trick. You don’t need a tractor – a team of horses will do. Once the hay is up on top of the stack you spread it out, moving it out to edges.

Mostly it works well. There some things that can go wrong. The load of hay may take it into its head to roll crooked. If that happens you have a mess. If you don’t stop pulling soon enough it rolls off the stack and then you have a real mess. Or a rope might break or come untied. Or the cable might snap. Did I mention that you stand clear of that cable? If it snaps (and I’ve seen it happen) and you’re in the way you’ll never pitch hay again.

Oh yes, and then there is that matter of backing the hayrack up to the stack.

Backing up hayracks

There is an interesting difference between two wheeled and four wheeled wagons. In a two wheeled wagon the tongue (that’s the long piece of wood that sticks out at the front) is fixed in its attachment to the wagon (cart, really). The only point of pivoting is at the pin where the tongue is fastened to the tractor. In a four wheeled wagon, however, the front two wheels and tongue pivot together as a separate pivot point. As a direct consequence you can back up a two wheeled cart indefinitely in a straight direction but not a four wheeled wagon. With a four wheeled wagon the corrections you have to make keep getting bigger and bigger as you go along until you jackknife. It’s a geometry thing. Don’t worry about it.

A hayrack is a four wheeled wagon.

So here we have a haystack in the making and a hayrack full of hay. What needs to be done is to get the hayrack to the foot of the stack so that you can roll the hay in the hayrack up onto the stack. Only you can’t just pull the hayrack up to the foot of the stack because the stack is in the way. What you have to do is back the hayrack up to the stack.

But didn’t we just say that you can’t back up a four wheeled wagon? No, we said you can’t back it up indefinitely in a straight line. You can back it up a short distance in a crooked line if you know what you are doing. What you do is to position the tractor and the wagon as though you were just making a sharp turn in an arc. Then you straighten it out as you back up. If you do it right the hayrack is straight and squared away with with the stack just as you get to the stack. It’s a trick. My father was very good at it.

It must have been harder back when they used horses. When I was young we had work horses; sometime before WW-II, however, my father got our first tractor. Every year he used to take it apart, grease it, and clean up all the bits and pieces. Every time he did this he had a few parts left over. I was of the opinion that eventually he would have enough parts left over so that he could build a second tractor.

Horses do not have a convenient attachment on their rear ends to which you can attach a wagon tongue, a feature that was overlooked by the horse design committee when they were putting together the camel. What you have to do with horses to use them with wagons is a bit complicated. The essential things are the horse collar and the singletree. The horse collar is a U shaped thingie about a meter high that slips around the horse’s neck and rests against their shoulders. You can’t just tie a strap around their neck because it would choke them. (Some people claim that the invention of the horse collar ended slavery in Europe.)

The other piece is the singletree. The dictionary says that it is also called a swingletree or a whiffletree which is news to me – I never heard of them being called anything but a singletree. Anyway a singletree is a piece of wood about a meter long with an iron ring at each end and one in the middle. When you have one horse the singletree goes behind the horse; straps on either side run from the horse collar to the rings on the end; the wagon connects to the ring in the middle. When you have more than one horse there are a couple of ways to hook things up, depending on whether you use a doubletree or not. Another way to do things is to have shafts sticking out from the wagon (buggies have shafts) and have the horse between them.

I imagine that backing up a hay wagon with horses is a fairly tricky business – the gear is designed to make it easy for horses to pull wagons, not for them to push wagons backwards. Using horses for field work was a bit before my time as a working hand but at least I know what a singletree is. My younger sisters grew up in the town place; by then we didn’t use horses any more except for cattle work. One day one of them saw a singletree on the ground and asked “What is that?” Disconcerted my mother something fierce. You see, work horses were a part of her life, something you took for granted. She hadn’t quite realized how little of that life her younger children had shared.


Memories are strange. Sometimes decades go by uneventfully leaving scarcely a trace. Sometimes the events of a few months or years can loom large in retrospect.

My years as a ranch hand pitching hay spanned by adolescence, roughly from 12 to 19. During that time I went to high school and spent a year in college studying bridge, chess, and poker. When I wasn’t in school, though, I worked. My days as a ranch hand ended when I joined the Marine Corps under the amiable illusion that the Corps was an improvement on farm life.

It wasn’t a lengthy period of my life but the memories are precious.

This page was last updated June 11, 1998.