Making Hay

From sythes to balers, Claire Simpson, outlines a brief history of hay making in NI

Grassland farming has shaped our landscape and rural economy. Grass makes up 94% of our agricultural land area and Northern Ireland’s most important crop. Traditionally, livestock farmers have relied on haymaking to produce winter fodder. But despite the efficiency of modern machinery, changes in climate and modern farming methods have meant haymaking has largely been replaced in favour of silage production. As with all changes in farming methods, the switch from haymaking to silage-making has impacted on our environment.
Haymaking is a relatively recent development in our agricultural history. It's thought Ireland's temperate climate meant animals could be kept in the fields during winter so fodder during the colder months was not required. It’s no accident the advent of haymaking in Ireland occurred during the same period as the decline of the Irish language. Irish has very few words related to haymaking whereas English dialects contain a number of words which refer to the various steps of the haymaking process. Nevertheless haymaking was certainly a key event in the farming calendar right up until the 1990s.
Hay was mown between July and September, usually by scythe. Scythes had been used in Ireland as early as the Norman Conquest but references to scythes from Gaelic sources only date from the late sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, scythes were being used more widely, particularly to harvest grain.
During the 1860s, mowing machines became more popular, partly due to the difficulty of employing scythesmen and partly because mowing a field using a machine was perceived to be cheaper than hiring scythesmen. In the early years of the 20th century, the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction encouraged farmers to buy mowing machines. The Department even went so far as to suggest groups of small farmers should buy a machine as part of a co-operative.
After the hay was mown, the next stage in the process involved turning and spreading it out to dry. In the early half of the nineteenth century the turning or ‘shaking-out’ of the hay was done with forks although by 1860, horse-drawn hay tedding machines were more widely used. The cutting and turning of the hay usually took place in the morning, whilst the afternoon was spent raking the hay into long "wind-rows", either by a hand or with the help of a horse-drawn rake.
In the evening, depending on weather conditions, the hay was built into small piles or field cocks. In the northern counties of Ireland, small field cocks of around two feet in diameter, known as lap-cocks, were made. Lapping the hay involved taking a small quantity of hay and forming it into a roll. The round shape of the lap-cocks meant rain tended to drip off the hay rather than soaking in to it, whilst the hole in the middle of the lap allowed air to circulate. Lap-cocks were often taken apart and remade over the course of a few days to encourage the drying process.
After drying, the cocks were combined to make ricks or "trampcocks". The laborious process of moving large amounts of hay was done by looping a rope round a cock and attaching the ends of the rope to a horse's traces. Although by the latter half of the nineteenth century a hay sweep machine, commonly referred to as a ‘Tumblin' Paddy’ gained in popularity. The "Tumblin' Paddy" was a crude but effective piece of machinery, consisting of a row of six tines attaches to a beam. Each end of the beam was attached to a draught chain which was connected to a horse's harness. When enough hay was collected, the Tumblin' Paddy was tipped over to release its load and the process was started again.
Hay was either stacked on a raised stone base or on a layer of straw or sticks at ground level. When the stack reached several feet in height, the conical roof was built. The sides of the stack were then smoothed before the stack was thatched with straw and tied down with hay or straw ropes.
Stacks were often prone to fermentation and rotting but by the early twentieth century hay barns were becoming more widely used. The simple hay barn structure of a frame covered with corrugated iron can still be seen in many rural areas.
The twentieth century saw huge changes in agriculture and haymaking became less of a communal activity and more of mechanized process. Arguably one of the greatest changes came with the introduction of large diameter drum mowers were brought in the 1960s. The design of mowers further improved with the introduction of disc mowers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disc mowers incorporate two or three sets of knives attached to a rotor. The discs do not clog, which is ideally suited to the wet cutting conditions in Northern Ireland. Mower-conditioners gained in popularity in the late 1970s. Grass stems dry out more slowly than the leaves but bruising the stems can speed up the drying rate. Flails were added to the disc mower design to combine cutting with grass conditioning.
Baling machines were also introduced around the same period to mechanise hay gathering and packing. Baling machines pick up hay and form it into either standard rectangular bales or large cylindrical “big bales”. Rectangular bales were most common in Northern Ireland for much of the twentieth century but cylindrical bales have superseded them over the last twenty years. Cylindrical bales can be of varying sizes but are normally wrapped with twine, net and plastic.
Nevertheless, the last twenty years have seen the decline of haymaking. Silage has become the most popular form of winter fodder. Silage-making does not rely on favourable weather conditions, is less time-consuming and more cost effective. Unfortunately Northern Ireland’s bird population has suffered as a result of the switch. Silage crops are cut earlier and more frequently than hay but lowland farm birds like the corncrake need vegetation taller than 20cm. Corncrake numbers declined by 75% between 1972 and 1991 as silage-making became more widespread.
Haymaking may no longer be an important feature of the agricultural calendar but it is far from being a forgotten art. During the last few years, haymaking festivals have been held in Omagh and Scurlogstown, Co. Meath. Unlike many rural traditions the skills of haymaking will be retained for future generations.
Further Reading
Irish Farming: Implements and Techniques 1750-1900 by Jonathan Bell & Mervyn Watson
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation