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Column: Making hay while the sun shines
Tom Poland.jpg
Tom Poland

This time of year, I love seeing big round bales of hay. Something about hay bales makes me feel good. Maybe it’s because I see man and nature assuring cattle and horses future meals. Maybe it’s because I stop and smell the hay.

Folks urge each other to stop and smell the roses. Well, I say take time to smell the hay, a fragrance reminiscent of bread baking in an oven. Fresh-cut bales scatter across fields along the back roads as if a giant casually tossed them about. Make a summer’s day drive into the country, and you’ll spot them. I’ve seen big bales dotting a grassy vale between mountains. Down dusty roads, I enter the province of old gas pumps and fields rife with big round bales. I’ve seen plastic-wrapped round bales lined against an edge of forest. From afar, they resemble a big albino caterpillar. My favorite scenes are like the one you see below. A silo surrounded by big bales. You’re in farm country, afar from the city and its noise and congestion.

But, just what’s behind all the bales? How does hay happen? Those who don’t understand the business of growing hay probably think it’s easy. Just let the stuff grow and then cut it. Hard work and patience -- that’s what’s behind all those bales, for hay is not a cut-and-dried subject. Not to farmers. When city slickers see big bales spread across a field, they probably don’t think about weather. A farmer needs three days to make hay while the sun shines, an old saying that sure tells the truth for rain and mold ruin hay. Fortunately, we get a lot of sunshine down South. Imagine golden sunshine raining down on a deep green field of Coastal Bermuda. As it heats up and dries, a heavenly scent rises. When I stopped to take the photograph you see here, swirls of air greeted me, eddies rich with the fragrance of life.

I look for but seldom see the old square bales anymore. (Truth be told they’re rectangular.) These big round bales? They’re heavy. Takes farm equipment to move those around. Not the square bales. How well I recall “getting up hay.” It was hot, sweaty, itchy work gathering up the square bales and stacking them on trucks. I’ve written before that the coldest Coca-Cola I ever drank was while gathering hay on a blazing hot summer day at my grandfather’s farm. Aunt Vivian went to Prices Store and returned with a cooler of Coca-Colas for the workers. Sitting beneath a persimmon tree, a breeze in my face, I downed it in seconds, so cold it burned.

Square bales? I just don’t see them, but it’s common to see round bales wrapped in plastic. Why is that? An expert enlightened me. “Essentially, the farmers are making silage out of hay,” said Dr. Matthew Burns, the extension beef specialist, livestock and forage program team leader at Clemson University. “The old way -- and people still do that with corn and sorghum -- is to chop it and put it in a pit or bag and make silage of it.” Burns said more people have started doing baleage as it provides leeway on not having to get the crop all the way dried down because you want some moisture. You don’t do it with every crop,” he said, adding that if the process goes as it should, you don’t have to worry about mold.

Down in the sunny South, we make hay when a lot of people in the rest of the country can’t. Consider hay as insurance against a stretch of bad weather. Remember when drought struck farmers in Texas? Well, drought can strike here, too. Farming families grow insurance, provided Mother Nature gives them three good days of weather at a favorable time. Old Sol usually does his job, and man and beast alike get to enjoy hay, what the old folks called fodder.

Parts of this column first appeared in South Carolina Farmer magazine.

Hay