In the marshmallow field
When my father first went into the business of selling farm machinery, there were still quite a few ranchers in our country who put their hay up loose. They’d use a buck rake to gather the hay from the windrows and make large loaf-shaped piles of hay in he field. A couple of innovate ranchers mounted buck rakes to the back of old truck frames and drove them around backwards in the field. There were a few ranchers who still used horses for power when they put up their hay.
We were in the business of sailing bailers. My father was a John Deere dealer and the John Deere 14 baler was a modern solution for the problem of how to put up hay. It came in several different models. The 14T fed twine to tie the bales. The 14W used wire. The PTO model was for ranchers who had a tractor with enough power and a power take off to run the baler. Popular in our country are the models that had a Wisconsin air-cooled engine to power the baler. These could be pulled by a smaller tractor in the field. The bales from these machines were gathered from the field by hand by a few ranchers, but most soon got large loaders for their tractors to pick up the bales. In our country, most of the stacks were built by hand until a few ranches got New Holland self propelled stackers.
We sold a lot of balers. Over the years as new models of equipment came out, we sold mowers, rakes, swathers, and lots of balers.
When the companies came out with the balers that made large round bales, they were eagerly embraced in our country. Each bale could weigh as much as a ton and the process meant that the hay was completely handled by machines. The bales could not be lifted by hand and so there were a lot fewer back injuries from handling hay by hand. I was off to college by that time and have only helped feed a few round bales when visiting ranches.
These days there are huge square balers that make special bales that transport easily. On the west coast they load bales into shipping containers for transport to Japan and China to be used as animal feed. The long-distance transport of hay is only economically viable because we import so much from China that the shipping containers pile up on US shores and the ships might have to return empty if there wasn’t something to fill them.
In recent years, we have observed many ranches switching from twine-wrapped bales to net-wrapped bales. The netting protects the hay better and less is lost in moving and storing outside. Also, net wrapping takes only a couple of turns in the baler, compared to 15 to 30 for twine wrapped bales. This makes baling go faster and the increased cost is offset by the savings of time.
In country where there is a lot of moisture and the hay is put up green from the field, they use plastic wrap. They cut the hay green and bale it immediately instead of allowing it to dry in the field. The bales ferment and produce feed that is higher in protein for the animals.
While we didn’t live on a ranch, we spent a lot of time on ranches, and I remember lots of times when we played in and around hay stacks. When my cousin got a round baler, his kids though up all kinds of adventures that involved climbing to the top of the bales and jumping from one to another.
Right next to the back yard where our grandchildren live there is a hay field that receives lots of moisture. The Skagit valley is prone to flooding, which makes for rich soil and the field produces three cuttings each summer. The rancher plastic wraps the bales then pushes the wrapped bales together to make for quicker loading when transporting them off of the field.
I joked with our grandchildren this past summer about living next to a marshmallow field. The big bales, wrapped in white plastic look like giant marshmallows. Since we were camping with our grandchildren and S’mores were a big hit as they learned to toast a marshmallow over a campfire, there was plenty of talk of marshmallows during our visit.
This past week, as we traveled back home, the rancher made another cutting of hay and put up bales in the field behind their home. Our son sent us pictures last night of the kids playing on the bales. It brought back memories of playing in loose hay when I was a kid, and of stacking bales as a teenager, and of playing on the round bales with my cousin’s children. I feel fortunate that our grandchildren are growing up in a place where they can see part of the process of producing food and understand how it works. I am also grateful that they live next to open space where they can run and play and experience the world in a safe environment. Their home is long on books and home-made objects and short on television, which suits their grandfather perfectly. This summer we built a short fence for their yard and since it was hot in the day, I dug most of the post holes in the early morning. Our seven-year-old grandson was out there first thing each day, shoveling the dirt mounds and working right alongside me. I’m glad he is growing up with a sense of the worth of real hands-on work.
And, in addition to the work, there is plenty of time for play. There is no need of fancy equipment or uniforms or other trappings to go and play on the hay bales. All you need is your imagination and the gentle eyes of your parents to make sure you stay safe. It doesn’t hurt that they live right next to a marshmallow field.