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Golden Opportunities

Author Photo
By Josephine Roberts | Nov 3, 2020

Lack of sun means that hay-making has had to turn into haylage-making here in North Wales, with my brother Wil at the wheel.

Most of Britain’s hay is made into large bales, but we Brits still make plenty of the small rectangular bales. Perhaps you too remember the feel of baler twine cutting into your fingers and the rash on bare limbs from lifting small, rectangular bales.

Many farmers still make small bales because there is a decent market for them. They are sought by hobby farmers, horse owners and anyone who keeps small numbers of grazing animals. Haymaking with small bales remains commercially viable, especially if bale sledges and loaders are used to minimise the need for too much human labour. Profits aside, many make a bit of hay in the old-fashioned way largely because they enjoy an opportunity to use their vintage or classic equipment. Haymaking time offers a golden opportunity for the nostalgia-seeker. You get to play with your favorite machines, and make a saleable product at the end of it: What’s not to like? 

There’s a certain sort of romance to haymaking that is fueled by sunshine, the sense of camaraderie and the satisfaction of seeing a sweet-smelling harvest safely stacked under cover. It’s no wonder that people so fondly recall their early haymaking days. Haymaking using modern equipment just isn’t the same. When farmers make a hay or silage crop today, large machinery is used. Each person is alone inside his own cab and much of the joy of working alongside others as a team is lost.

This Nuffield Universal 3 is powerful enough to cart bales like this, but going up a slope it is light in the front end, so weights on the front are helpful.

Younger tractor enthusiasts also enjoy working with older machinery at haymaking time, because it provides them with a chance to use tractors and implements that were used long before these youngsters were twinkles in their parents’ eyes. We older folks have to remember that the younger tractor enthusiasts did not use 1960s and ’70s machinery when they were young. They are familiarising themselves with this old technology for the first time, and there’s nothing like a five-day stint of working with different tractors and implements to give a person experience. Haymaking with old kit really does give tractor enthusiasts, and their machinery, a chance to shine.

Mix-and-match technique

These days, my own harvest consists of a mish-mash of old and new(er) techniques. I sold my Ferguson finger-bar mower when I realised it was a lot less effort to ask my brother Wil to cut the crop with a disc mower. There was something fascinating about watching the hypnotic “snip snip” of the blades of the old finger-bar mower in action, but it was painfully slow to cut anything more than half an acre. Cutting thick grass was fiddly as the mower would clog periodically and the whole operation would grind to a halt while the blockage was cleared. Today, there’s nothing at all vintage about the mowing part of my haymaking.

However, for turning the hay, I use a borrowed PTO-powered hay tedder known as a ‘Haybob’ behind my 1960 Massey Ferguson 35. Then there is usually a certain amount of very “old school” hay raking going on around rocks and in funny-shaped corners. This is where children and wooden hay rakes come in handy. Once the hay is rowed, then Wil comes back with his Case tractor and Welger round baler, which are probably becoming classics by now, a thought which makes me feel very old.

After my hay was rowed up, I lent the tractor to my brother Dafydd to row his hay with (with strict instructions not to break it!).

Wil usually makes some sarcastic remarks about the way the hay is rowed, and off he goes, baling it into round bales that we cart into one field using a bale spike behind whichever old tractor is free. This year it was my brother Dafydd’s Nuffield Universal 3. Later, usually the same evening, a neighbour comes and wraps the round bales in plastic. I get to do some of the work with 1960s tractors, but my hay is not baled into small bales anymore. Instead it is baled into big round bales of haylage and wrapped. Some (but not quite all) of the romance is lost. There’s nothing romantic about plastic, that’s for sure.

Up until a few years ago, I owned an old Massey Ferguson baler, but I sold it as it had seen better days. For a few summers, I wasn’t able to use it at all, because the weather was too damp and the hay had to be made into haylage quickly as rain was on the horizon. I had no room in the barn for both the hay and the baler, so it was stored outside under a tarpaulin, which usually had to be replaced every year. The old baler was just gathering moss, so it made sense to sell it to someone who could use it and store it in a better place.

The fine art of forecasting

I miss old-style baling, though. In a little, cabless tractor, the rhythmic beat and shudder of the baler is felt full on and there’s something extremely rewarding about seeing the baler gobbling up hay and depositing little bales all over the field like a hungry dinosaur with an unfeasibly fast metabolism. Baling with a little old tractor makes you feel so much more in the middle of the action than baling from the cab of a large modern tractor. At the end of a day’s baling, you know you’ve worked, as your body is still feeling the echoes of the movement and noise of the baler long after you’ve stopped driving and are sitting down enjoying a nice beer.

Phillip Houghton of Mid Wales out haymaking with his Massey Ferguson 35X tractor and Massey-Harris baler.

One thing I don’t miss about old-style baling is the weather worries. Never in North Wales can one hear a weather forecast of a guaranteed five days of sunny haymaking weather.  There is almost always the risk it might rain, or two days into a hot spell, the weather changes.

Often you are faced with a “do I or don’t I cut it?” decision. Sometimes it is safer to leave it and wait for a better forecast, but leaving it too late means the hay might begin to flop and lose its nutrition.

A classic Roadless Ploughmaster 75 makes light work of a good crop and a sloping field on this fine summer’s day. Ed Batchelor, a tractor enthusiast based on the Hampshire Downs, has a collection of Roadless tractors spanning from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s that he uses for varied farm tasks. 

Talking about the weather and second-guessing our unpredictable maritime climate is something that we Brits have down to a fine art, but no one has as much to say about the weather as a farmer who is thinking about cutting his hay. For farmers at haymaking time, much time is spent looking at forecasts and talking to one’s neighbours, saying things like, “They say it’s going to be hot for days now,” to which your neighbour will reply, “It doesn’t look so good Wednesday though” and there will follow a long conversation about what the weather might or might not do, depending on if the wind direction changes or not. Usually the conversation will conclude with something like “Aye, you can’t tell what it’s going to do,” and the farmer will go back to stroking his chin and looking up at the sky, wondering if he should go for it and cut that bottom field, or not.

Implements of yesteryear

Haymaking has been going on since our ancient ancestors settled and became farmers. Since the beginning, we have been looking for ways to make this labour-intensive work easier and faster. When horse-drawn mowers appeared in the 1800s, they could do the work of 15 people turning hay by hand. Before long, a multitude of companies were designing and manufacturing mowers, hay tedders, rakes and elevators, all of which sped up haymaking and massively reduced the labour required. Some farm labourers rightfully felt that these expensive new machines were taking their work away from them, which was undoubtedly true, since now entire farms are run by just a few people, where in the past, perhaps 10 times more people would be involved, especially at harvest time. 

Phillip Houghton and son put their Massey Ferguson 35X to work pulling a Massey-Harris Dickie hay turner.

Small pick-up balers were available beginning in the 1940s. Balers were an expensive piece of equipment, almost up there with a tractor, which was a huge investment for something used just a week or two a year. Many small-time farmers didn’t own their own balers and instead used local contractors to bale their hay. By the late 1950s, balers were being produced in large numbers in the U.K. Every farmer had at least one, and Welsh firm Jones Baler Co. was among those doing a roaring trade producing balers for home and export.

Putting the Jones Master Tedder to work

Jones also built hay tedders and other implements. Peter Brown, who lives just over the border from Wales in beautiful Shropshire, enjoys old-time harvests. Peter collects and uses many old tractors and pieces of cultivating and harvesting equipment. Given that Peter has Welsh roots, he was keen to own an implement from the Jones stable. The implement Peter owns is a Jones Master Tedder hay turner.

A Fordson Major with a 4-wheel drive Roadless conversion (belonging to Ed Batchelor) carrying bales back to the farm.

Because Jones was best known for its balers, few of these implements have survived. Only in recent years have collectors begun to take an interest in old implements, so when Peter was offered the Jones tedder by friends in North Wales, he jumped at the chance to own an unusual piece of Welsh agricultural history.

This hay tedder is known as the Master Tedder, because it is a double-row tedder, whereas the Mini Tedder was a single-row tedder. Peter restored the tedder and uses it every time he makes hay. He feels it does an extremely good job of turning and shaking out the hay. “I’ve seen modern hay turners kick out big lumps of wet hay without separating them,” he says, “but this machine really seems to do the job well, despite its age.” 

Bought for just a few pounds, this simple and durable side-delivery rake (which belongs to my brother Pete) remains in occasional use. 

Another thing Peter likes about the tedder is that it is extremely light and easy to maneuver: It can be pushed in and out of the shed by just one person. Whilst the tedder is a wide, old machine, it is in fact quite futuristic in its design. The wheels can easily be swiveled so that it can be towed lengthways behind the tractor, which is crucial when negotiating our narrow lanes and gateways. In its day, this tedder’s design would have seemed quite cutting edge, and extremely time saving for someone with a big field to turn and row.

Auction bargain well suited to the task

My brother Pete also likes to use his older tractors for turning hay, as it provides an excellent opportunity for him to give them a good workout. Vintage tractors often drive on and off the trailer and around the ring at a show and never have the opportunity to warm up and work properly.

A Jones MK10 baler in action this summer; half a century old and still doing the job.

Pete’s implement of choice to go behind a golden oldie is his Bamford of Uttoxeter side-delivery rake. Simple and durable, this old English-built hay-turning device is still capable of a good day’s work, and being land-drive, it requires no PTO from the tractor and can be used behind his Fordson Model N tractor. “It works perfectly for turning a fine crop of meadow hay, and it is much less aggressive than some of the PTO-powered hay turners,” Pete says. “But I don’t think it would work so well turning a very thick crop of hay that has had fertilizer.”

We can’t find a way to date the hay turner – Bamfords made so many over a long period of time – but we know it was built for a tractor, so it isn’t an ancient, horse-drawn conversion. It was certainly built before power take-off, chemical fertilisers and large tractors became the norm.

Wide implements weren’t really the norm here in the late 1950s. The Jones company got around the problem of wide implements and narrow lanes by designing their Master Tedder so that it could be rotated and towed lengthways.

Pete bought the side-delivery rake at an auction a few years back, for around £30 (roughly $38 today) I think, and he recalls that I made him buy it. He happened to have a trailer with him at the time, and it seemed a shame to let such a well-crafted machine go to the scrap, so, yes, I did persuade him to bid. The fact that some of these old implements have little monetary value is all the more reason to preserve them. Plenty of people are willing to preserve our rare old tractors, so someone has to remember the implements that worked behind them back in the day, and which sometimes still do. FC


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.

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