JUNE 5, 2013: While the sun shines, why not make hay? Andrew Rock gives some tips for very small scale haymaking

While the sun shines, why not make hay? Andrew Rock gives some tips for very small scale haymakingI keep a very small flock of Jacobs sheep and last year I produced my own hay to see them through the winter. I couldn’t justify buying machinery so decided to step back in time and make hay the traditional way. After a small investment in some basic tools I was ready to give it a go and found the process far more practical and enjoyable than I had anticipated. My sheep only eat a few bales of hay over winter. I had previously found that the quality of hay can be variable and buying organic hay difficult. By making hay myself I was able to control the quality and I knew that no chemicals had been used. The first and most important step is to get a good scythe. I bought an Austrian scythe from a second hand shop but new ones are available (www.thescytheshop.co.uk). Traditional English scythes are heavier than the Austrian version and many are too worn out to be useful. The scythe blade must be kept razor sharp. For this you need a peening tool and a sharpening stone. As the blade needs regular sharpening, a belt holder for the stone is useful so it is easily to hand whilst cutting. Look on You-Tube for videos showing how to peen, sharpen and use a scythe. After a little practice I was successfully cutting grass. There is a strange, almost medieval satisfaction in using a scythe that has to be experienced to be appreciated. The sharp blade makes a distinctive ‘swish’ noise as it effortlessly cuts through a swathe of grass. With practice it becomes a pleasant, rhythmic and relaxing task. After discovering just how quickly a scythe can cut, I now use an old one (not my best grass cutter) instead of my strimmer for clearing rough areas. As the grass is cut, the scythe deposits it in neat rows. These rows can they be spread and turned during the following, sunny days, to dry the grass. I used a traditional pitch fork for this but I think an old fashioned, wide, wooden pegged hay rake would be better. I am looking out for one of these. Once the grass seemed dry enough, my son Thomas helped stack it onto a raised platform made from sticks. This let air circulate underneath and a tarpaulin on top kept the rain off. We also tightly packed some hay into paper feed sacks. These are a convenient size and easy to handle but need to be stored under cover. Both methods have worked well and supplied my sheep with all the tasty, healthy hay they needed this winter. Was this traditional method for hay making worth the effort? That depends on your point of view. Eight hours of labour to make about £16 of hay is not a great hourly rate, so from a financial perspective probably not worth doing. However, the satisfaction of learning a new skill that has been done by generations before us, combined with the high quality end product means that this year, once again I will be sharpening my scythe and making the most of the summer sunshine.

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