Appreciating the Hay Hook

The hay hook, a simple device, made grueling job easier.

Men hay stack

Two pleased young men posing by an 8,000-bale stack the day it was finished.

Photo courtesy Clell G. Ballard

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Ever since people ceased being nomadic and began living permanently in one place, they have kept animals that helped supply their needs. Those that produced milk, like goats and cattle, were highly prized. In areas with mild winters, they were easy to keep because their food supply was native grass.

In order to feed animals in areas with harsher winters, it was necessary to harvest and store some kind of hay. For centuries, that meant cutting a grass crop with a scythe and transporting it to a central location. The most basic tool found everywhere for feeding cattle and cleaning up after them was the pitchfork.

A welcome development

When farm machinery came along, new methods of handling hay were developed. Baling became the standard by the mid-20th century. First, hay was brought to stationary balers. Eventually, almost everyone used balers pulled by tractors that picked up hay in the field. Self-propelled balers never really caught on. Pitchforks didn’t disappear, but they were no longer needed to use in hand-piling loose hay into large stacks.

The common baler cut hay into small sections and compressed those into a rectangular cube that was bound with twine. For several decades, bales were typically secured by two strong strings made of sisal.

Pitching loose hay all day long was hard work. The generation that did that is mostly gone now, but this author has been told stories of weeks of hard physical labor spent stacking hay. When people today look back on that activity, they rarely understand the difficulty of standing on unstable loose hay hour after hour, lifting and distributing forks of hay as they built a stack. When baling came along, America’s farmers welcomed the development.

‘Slipping’ bales

Farmers in our isolated area were slow to begin baling their hay, but my uncle had his custom-baled for the first time in 1958. As a teenager, I went out that summer to help him stack bales. We picked up the alfalfa hay bales (each weighed about 70 pounds) by the two strings. Even though we wore gloves, our fingers were red and raw after a couple of days of that. Sore hands were not an excuse to miss work, so a lot of agony accompanied my introduction to bale stacking. Fortunately, his crop was fairly small, so I survived (although there were times I doubted I would).

When California dairies relocated to southern Idaho, demand for high-protein hay from our high elevation, dry-land valley increased dramatically. By the next summer, my uncle had his own hay baler to put up a crop several times larger than before. When the bales came out of the baler, we “slipped” them. A platform made of heavy planks was pulled along the ground behind the baler where I stood and stacked the bales. When a pile of about 10 was made, a bar was jabbed into the ground between the planks, forcing the bales to slide off onto the ground. Then the process was repeated. When the baling was complete, numerous small piles of bales had been scattered across the field.

My cousin and I were hired to haul in bales and make one large stack. For the next decade, a good part of my summer consisted of stacking hay bales by hand. Pitching hay was hard work, but in some ways, stacking heavy bales was even harder. Our 11-hour day consisted of five hours from 7 a.m. until dinner time. We returned to the fields at 1 p.m. during the heat of the day, stacking until 7 p.m., which was quitting time.

Hook eased the handling

Every bale was picked up five times between the time it was created to the time it rested neatly in a stack. First, the bale was carried from the baler to the slip pile, where it was picked up and placed on a hay loader that carried it up to the truck. A man stationed on the truck placed bales for transport to the stack. At the stack, each bale was lifted from the truck and either tossed down or placed on a loader so it could be carried up. Finally, the bale was carried and carefully placed on the stack in a way that ensured stability. With all that handling, using the strings became a problem. Since I slipped the bales, I picked up each one three times and my cousin picked them up twice.

Our personal bale-handling equipment consisted of special leather hay aprons and hay hooks. Many kinds of hooks were developed over the years, but we used models with round wooden handles. Although simple in appearance, those hooks were wonderful for lifting two-string hay bales. They were formed just right so you could insert them into the hay with almost no effort. If a bale was decent at all, the hook never pulled out.

Although it may be hard for some to believe, I always stacked hay barehanded. My cousin wore gloves, but I found I could lift, handle, carry and place bales more easily by just holding that wooden handle in my bare hands. There was never any need for a skilled stacker to touch the hay itself.

Mind-numbing numbers

The photos accompanying this article show us working in 1965, when we built a stack of 8,000 bales. That means my cousin picked up 16,000 and I picked up 24,000 (remember, each of the 8,000 was handled five times). We had already done stacking for several years and didn’t know it at the time, but for the next six summers we at least matched that number and sometimes exceeded it.

By 1969 and for a few years thereafter, a slightly easier method was developed, but it only reduced the number of bales lifted by one-third. Finally machine stackers came online and our career of “bucking bales” ended. We were glad it was over.

If someone today were to run across a pair of hay hooks like those we used back then, they would hardly notice them. They are just simple artifacts of earlier farming efforts. Please take my testimony that wooden-handle hay hooks were (and are) wonderful agricultural inventions, because with them – in slightly more than a decade – I was able to “buck” more than one-quarter of a million hay bales bare-handed. FC

– A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.