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Harvesting Wild Hay

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Montana ranchers perfect the hay slide

Located at the southwestern corner of Montana, Beaverhead County snuggles into the curve made by the Continental Divide as it forms the boundary between the eastern panhandle of Idaho and Big Sky Country. A maze of mountains and river valleys, the Beaverhead area was the land of the Shoshone Indians and is rich in history. On their 1805 trek to explore the then-new Louisiana Purchase, explorers Lewis and Clark were led by a Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, through the Beaverhead area. In 1877, the U.S. Army was defeated by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians at the battle of Big Hole.

Containing the rich valleys of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers with their abundant native shortgrass, Beaverhead County is one of Montana's top cattle- and hay-producing regions. Ranchers in Beaverhead County raise cattle, along with some horses to help tend the cows, and they harvest wild hay every summer to feed their cattle through the long, hard Montana winters. No other crops are grown, and virtually no tillage is practiced, except for a fall top dressing of fertilizer on the meadows from time to time.

The wild hay grown in Beaverhead County and other prairie areas is nutritious and a good source of protein and energy. However, a lot of it must be fed to maintain cattle during the winter when pastures aren't available. There's no way the huge amounts of hay required could be stored indoors, so most of it is, and always has been, stacked in the field. In the interest of economy, these stacks must be big.

Obviously, building big haystacks is difficult with a 6-foot man wielding a pitchfork with a 5-foot handle. During the late 1800s, several devices were developed to allow the loose hay to be piled high. One was a bipod made of two tall poles joined at the top by a cross pole. A rope from a hay sling was run through a pulley fastened to the center of the cross pole. A team of horses hitched to the rope lifted the sling full of hay and the bipod was allowed to tilt over the stack where the sling was released, dumping the hay. These derricks were time-consuming to set up and slow, and certainly don't look very safe. Overshot stackers and Mormon derricks were used as well, but couldn't reach the heights required for really large stacks.

In about 1907, a couple of Big Hole valley ranchers named Armitage and Stephens built the first hay slide. It consisted of an inclined platform made of peeled saplings. The outside pole on either side was twice as long and supported pulleys for cables that raised a basket up the incline. The basket looked like a buck rake lying on its back with the teeth at right angles to the slide. In use, the basket was lowered until its teeth lay flat on the ground. A sweep rake pushed by a team of horses bucked a load of hay onto the basket's teeth. Another team pulled the basketful of hay up the slide, where it was dumped over the top. Four men with pitchforks built the stack and tramped down the hay, rounding off the top to shed water.

Armitage and Stephens called the contraption the Beaverhead County Slide Stacker when they applied for a patent in 1910, but over the years, the name has contracted and the machines are now known as beaver slides, or just hay slides.

As far as I can tell, hay slides have never been built by commercial machinery makers. They were, and still are, built in areas where prairie hay is harvested by the ranchers, or they can be bought from local fabricating shops. Slides being built today are usually 20 feet wide and about 20 feet high at the point of drop. They use steel-reinforced flat boards for the incline instead of peeled poles. The lift team has been retired; a small engine and winch, or more often a tractor, now provides the power to raise the basket.

An early improvement was the use of a backstop of poles and timbers against which the hay slide dumped the hay. With the backstop supporting the end of the stack, just two men were required to build and tramp. Today, most hay slides have a hinged wing on either side which, in conjunction with the backstop, forms an enclosure into which the hay is dumped (see top photo, page 12). With the side wings, no one works atop the growing stack placing and tramping down the hay.

The hay is raked into windrows by wheel-type side delivery rakes in some areas, while 40-foot-wide hydraulic dump rakes are used in others. Sweep rakes (commonly called buck rakes), usually built on a 1-ton truck chassis turned around to run backwards, scoot down the windrows gathering their loads, which are then pushed to a staging area in front of the hay slide. A single buck rake loads the hay slide, grabbing a load from the pile at the staging area and depositing it on the waiting teeth of the slide's basket. The hoist man manipulates his pedals and levers, or the lift tractor drives ahead, and the basket slides smoothly up the incline to dump its load on the growing stack.

When the enclosure is full, the wings are folded forward and the slide is pulled ahead one stack length. The wings are folded back into place and, with the previously completed stack section now acting as a back-stop, they form a new enclosure into which hay is dumped. After the stack reaches the desired size, a man with a pitchfork climbs atop and fills low spots where water could collect, and the hay slide is pulled to the location of the next stack.

During winter, the stacks are moved to where they are needed with a stack mover, a steel frame 20 feet wide with wheels at each end and a series of 20-foot long steel tines extending back from the frame. A small gasoline engine at the front drives a hydraulic pump to raise and lower the frame on the wheels and tighten cables that surround the stack. A large tractor backs the mover up to a stack and a bulldozer pushes the 25-ton pile of hay onto the tines. Steel cables are extended around the stack, hooked together and pulled tight hydraulically. The front frame is raised and the hay stack moves ponderously off across the field, dragging its tail behind.

- Information for this article came from the book Making Hay, published in 1986 by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Other information and the photos are courtesy of Travis and Erin Perrigo of McLaughlin, S.D. Travis took the photos of stacks being built on the Dvorak Brothers Ranch near Stuart, Neb. The hay slide in storage photo was furnished by Paul Reno of Oakland, Calif.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com