When mankind managed to give up nomadic ways and settle in one spot, taking care of animals required some way of feeding them during the months when grazing was not possible. Scythes were used almost forever to cut grass and other forage crops.
Common terminology referring to that season of the year was putting up hay. The “up” in that statement was used because after hay was cut, it was gathered and pitched into stacks. As time went by, more prosperous farmers built large barns where the hay was stored “up” in the haymow. The crop had to be collected in one place so it was usable.
Probably the first genuine improvement in that laborious process was the invention of horse-drawn machines that mechanically cut the crop. Soon after such devices were perfected, they almost completely replaced hand-cut animal feed in this country.
Mowing: a radical new concept
The generation that made the transition to mowing is gone now, but those of us who had the opportunity to discuss it with them have interesting observations. No longer was hay cut; instead, it was mowed. The very word mowed was not regularly used in earlier years. And when it comes to the actual mechanical workings of “mowing machines,” we might consider them quite simple, but the old timers wouldn’t have shared that view.
The standard sickle bar that incorporated the ground-driven sickle itself (passing back and forth through guards that separated the crop and cut it as it moved forward) was considered revolutionary. The length of the cutter bar was standardized at 5 feet and thus the ability to quickly cut that amount of crop boggled the minds of those who earlier had spent almost unending hours swinging a scythe.
Most of those who had farmed with horses had an extremely hard time accepting and using machines. Where knowledge of horseflesh and the intricacies of harness was once highly prized, as time went by those skills became obsolete. I had a great-uncle who, in the early 1920s, invented a new method of hooking harness to implements. It was such an improvement that if he had invented it a few decades earlier, he would have become quite wealthy. As it was, the method was barely adopted before tractors came along and no one cared anymore.
Simple concepts like regular maintenance had to be learned. Repair of mechanical objects was dramatically different from that of simple animal-pulled implements. Wrenches, nuts and bolts and replacement parts were as foreign a concept a century ago as computer fundamentals were to those of us who were adults when that technology arrived. Occasionally I run across old wrenches that were used on square nuts and bolts; today they look like prehistoric artifacts. Many had the IHC logo cast into the clunky cast iron tool. When I was young, an aged farmer told me that those letters stood for “In Hell Continuously” because of the difficulty of keeping machines functioning.
PTO mowers and cabs
Draft animals remained the primary power source for the new mowing machines. Any discussion of cutting hay usually had as many comments about the animals as the machines. When I asked an elder about his farming experiences, he said with obvious disgust that, “every summer I spent five weeks looking at the ass-end of a mule.” He went on to explain that his employer farmed with mules instead of horses. He wasn’t unhappy with the mule so much as with the long hours spent in the hay field.
By the time I began my farming career in the 1950s, mowing machines had disappeared from use. In rural areas, they graduated to yard decor. Hay was cut with tractors and PTO mowers. In our area, the John Deere No. 5 was the most common. The standard length of the cutter bar was now 7 feet and most could be raised with hydraulics. The number of acres cut per day was greater not only because of a longer cutter bar, but also because tractors could go much faster. I can testify that few jobs on a farm were as pleasant as driving a simple John Deere Model B with a mower in a beautiful green hay field. It was as close to communing with nature as possible with an engine running!
Time didn’t stand still. Instead of the Poppin’ Johnny and similar small tractors (I worked for one farmer who had a small Case tractor that he called “the pea popper”), larger tractors became common and eventually 9-foot mower cutter bars were used. About that time, tractors with cabs began to isolate operators from nature. No more cold mornings or hot afternoons. With no exposure to nature, the process of cutting hay became sanitized.
Evolution of the swather
The logical next step was to remove the tractor and use a machine dedicated just to cutting hay. The swather arrived, first as a spindly contraption with a large reel out front that forced the hay against the sickle. After it was cut, it fell on two short drapers running in opposite directions that carried it to a gap at the center of the machine where it dropped to the ground in rows.
Although more efficient because raking was unnecessary, the swather eliminated the pleasant job of sitting on a clean tractor watching hay fall down as the mower cut through it. Moreover, the crop’s dry leaves, pollen, insects and trash were batted into the operator’s face. Cabs soon improved matters for the operator. Cut width increased, augers replaced drapers, the cut hay was “conditioned” to dry more uniformly, and swathers became large, impressive (and expensive) implements.
Interestingly, until just recently, hay was cut with a sickle bar just like the one on the original mowing machine of a century ago. Rotary cutting mechanisms replaced large reels pushing the hay into the machine. Ground speed has doubled and tripled. Today, one new swather can cut as many acres in a day as were once cut on the average farm in an entire season. The operator occupies a compartment with all the comforts of home. With GPS guidance, operators no longer even have to drive; the machine drives itself.
Those of us who’ve farmed for the half century after machines replaced animals have witnessed this evolution. Raising hay has changed from providing forage for family-owned animals to a highly competitive business supplying large enterprises. Much of what we look back on with nostalgia has gone, never to return. There is no question that American agriculture has adapted in amazing ways, making it possible for all of us to have a higher standard of living. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.