September 17, 2004

From Wales to Wisdom: wet and dry hay in the West.

Silage bales, White Sands Bay, near St Davids, 2004. Silage bales on wagon, standing stone, Llanrhian, near St Davids, 2004.
In the old fishing and mining village of Porthgain, almost as far west as you can go on the most westerly peninsula of the island of Great Britain, Marion Davies reminisced about the old Welsh ways of haymaking. “We used to rake the hay over and over to dry it, on the few days of sunshine we get around here. The sweat would make our skin smart where the thistles had prickled us. At the end of the day, we’d run down to White Sands beach and dash into the surf to cool off. The salt made us sting even more, but it was so much fun. Now everything’s done with big machines. The weather doesn’t bother the farmers any more. They just wrap up the sappy grass and turn it into silage. It stinks. Horses hate it, but cows’ll eat anything. What they drop after eating silage stinks worse and turns the ground to acid.”
Wisdom sign, with hay making scenes, Wisdom, Montana, 2004.Haystacks, Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004.
Halfway between Wisdom and Jackson, in the Big Hole Valley of southwestern Montana, 83 year-old Jack Hirschy and his family still make the kind of hay the earliest ranchers once made by hand in this basin between the Beaverheads and the Bitterroots. For much of the year, the ground is frozen hard; then, after the spring thaw, the grass grows quickly in a virtual swamp. By July the ground and the air are dry enough to allow an army of workers, young and old, but now much diminished, and hay-making machines, old and new, into the vast, waist-high meadows.

 Silage bales, Ettington, Warwickshire, 2004.  Bales, between Stanley and Challis, Idaho, 2004. This essay will report on these two western hay-field-trips, made in the summer of 2004, one to the damp west of England and Wales, where hay has been made virtually obsolete by new technologies, and the other to the western United States, where the combination of semi-desert air and well-irrigated valleys still produces a magnificent variety of hay landscapes and hay shapes.



For centuries, the rolling summer patches of coastal Pembrokeshire were windrowed and cocked, as on the wide open fields depicted in the Dixton Manor painting described elsewhere on this site, and even today in the small fields on the peninsulas of western Ireland.
 Thatching hay, County Clare, 1987.Haystack and haycocks, Rossaveel, County Galway, 1987.Haystack and capped cocks, Ballynakill Harbor, County Galway, 1987.

Marion Davies and her family don’t farm anymore. They can’t afford the big machines. Alun, her husband, turned to painting the wonderful Pembrokeshire scenery, and she runs a gallery of his work for the tourists who hike along the 180-mile coastal path or drive down the narrow lane from Llanrhian to the shore. Every June for centuries, the fields beside the lane would have been full of the scent of sweet Welsh hay. In June 2004, these smells and the grass that used to yield them are covered in airtight plastic.

Then, fifty or so years ago, the loose hay began to be replaced by little rectilinear bales that could still be manhandled. More recently, the fields were occupied by fewer, larger bales, rectangular or round, that needed a forklift to lift and move. Now the scenery has taken on the scale and texture of a Christo landscape (for example his Wrapped Trees, installed in Switzerland in 1997).
Silage bales, near St Davids, 2004.White and green silage bales, near St Davids, 2004.Stacked silage bales, near St Davids, 2004.

Christo. Wrapped Trees. 1997.Christo. Wrapped Trees. 1997.

Huge plastic bundles, usually black and shiny as crows, occasionally white as snowdrifts, or more rarely a soft pastel green, dramatize and dominate the environment and seem to mock the mild, moist western weather which makes the grass so sweet and used to make its mowing and drying such a challenge.
Silage bales, near St Davids, 2004.Silage bales, White Sands Bay, 2004.Silage bales on a wagon, Llanrhian, 2004.

Silage bales, near St Davids, 2004.Silage bales, Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, 2004.Silage bales, Church Lawford, Warwickshire, 2004.

 Silage bales, Church Lawford, Warwickshire, 2004.Silage and hay in barn, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 2004.Traditional silage dump, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 2004.

These bundles have been a feature of the similarly damp New England summer landscape for more than a decade, prompting the painter Altoon Sultan to the following amibivalent observation: “this stuff - the silos, manure piles, plastic-wrapped hay, machinery - is exciting in its monumentality and sculptural presence. The ordinary ugliness of a tractor or a mound of old tires is weirdly beautiful.”
Sultan. Equivalents, Fletcher, Vermont, 1998.Sultan. Plastic wrapped bales, Barnet, Vermont, 1997. Sultan. Silage, 1999.

Sultan. Plastic curtain, Newbury, Vermont, 1999.Sultan. Tire tracks, North Haverill, New Hampshire, 1999. Haylage, near Palmyra, Maine, 1993.

British farmers once used all their powers of observation to predict the arrival and duration of sunny dry spells between the almost relentless squalls that roll in from the Atlantic across the Irish Sea. But now they don’t need to. They used to hope for about a week of warm weather to make the hay. Now they can cut, bale and wrap on the same day. Or they can wait four days or so and wrap the half-dried grass into a hybrid called haylage, a tobacco-like material that even horses, if necessary, will digest.

Silage bales, Ettington, Warwickshire, 2004. Silage bales, Ettington, Warwickshire, 2004.
Silage costs more to make, both because of the expensive machinery, often contracted to move from farm to farm, and the price of plastic, likely to increase as the cost of petroleum inexorably rises. But these costs are somewhat offset by the reduced risk of spoilage and the opportunity to harvest earlier in the year and potentially multiply the number of hay crops from the same field. A warm spell later in the year, especially if the summer turns dry, may allow the second crop to be left to dry unwrapped. The following pair of images was taken near the village of Biddestone in Wiltshire a day apart, in May, 2004. In former spring times, the white hawthorn blossoms in the copse beyond the windrows would rarely be seen with hay. In the second picture, the dogs explore the suddenly changed environment.
Henry and Chloe windrows, Wiltshire, May 27, 2004.Chloe and Henry, cleared hayfield, Wiltshire, May 28, 2004.
The only hay I saw in the west of England and Wales in June, 2004, was evidently left over from the previous year. All in large bales, mostly round, occasionally square, usually stored in barns, but sometimes evidently abandoned to sink back into the ground or used to fill in the space in a hedgerow by the Welsh coastal path.
 Square bales, Long Lawford, Warwickshire, 2004.Round bales in barn, Biddestone, Wiltshire, 2004. Round bales in barn, Biddestone, Wiltshire, 2004.
Round bales, Sulva, Pembrokeshire, 2004.Round bale in hedge by coastal path, Pembrokeshire, 2004.


Hay in the arid West.

But during a 3,000 mile journey through some of the western United States, two months later, we saw no silage, and thousands of tons of hay. Its production depended on irrigation water, usually pumped onto startlingly green alfalfa fields from streams and rivers flowing through an otherwise arid landscape.
Freshly cut alfalfa, Owyhee River, Rome, Oregon, 2004. Irrigation, haystacks, near Twin Falls, Idaho, 2004.



Irrigation, baling, near Townsend, Montana, 2004. Irrigation, baling, near Townsend, Montana, 2004.

Round bales are the dominant form, even appearing in the large marshy fields of the Big Hole. When asked whether this shift from the traditional large, loose-hay stack was related to topography, bales, perhaps being associated with better-drained, rolling ground, Jack Hirschy was skeptical. “It’s just a question of what crews are available at any given time. If a crew can handle the buck-rake and the beaver-slide (elevator), then we’ll gather the hay loose. The round-baler’s a light enough outfit to ride even on the lower ground, but it’ll be a few years before it takes over completely.” The Hirschy ranch has so many buck-rakes, beaver-slides, and metal-framed stack-holders, that the nimble new baler is joining a suite of alternatives rather than sweeping them away. Here are a few images of the tools used in gathering in the hay on the Hirschy Ranch, some of the legendary 10,000 haystacks of the Big Hole Valley, and a few of the round-bales beginning to invade the traditional landscape.

Big Hole Valley Sign, between Wisdom and Jackson, Montana, 2004.
Haymaking machinery, Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Swather or tedder, Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Buckrake, Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004.
Beaverslide elevator, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Haystack, beaverslide elevator, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Haystack, stack-frame, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004.
 Haystack, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Haystack, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Haystacks, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004.
 Haystack and round bales, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Haystack and round bales, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004. Haystack and round bales, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004.

Further north in Montana, round-bales are ubiquitous: near Townsend in the upper Missouri Valley, near Judith Gap east of the Little Belts, near Melville in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains, and pallisading the grand rolling country made famous by the novelist Ivan Doig, sout of Choteau near the Rocky Mountain Front.

Round baling, near Townsend, Montana, 2004. Round baling, near Townsend, Montana, 2004. Round baling, near Townsend, Montana, 2004.
Round bale, near Townsend, Montana, 2004. Round bales, old homestead, near Judith Gap, Montana, 1991. Making round bales, Crazy Mountains, Montana, 2000.
Round bales, near Choteau, Montana, 2004. Round bales, near Choteau, Montana, 2004.
Round bales, near Choteau, Montana, 2004. Round bales, near Choteau, Montana, 2004. Round bales, near Choteau, Montana, 2004.
It is not uncommon to find round bales and square bales stacked in close proximity, often mimicking the geological strata and shapes of the background mountains, like these downstream from Stanley, Idaho.
Bales, between Stanley and Challis, Idaho, 2004. Bales, between Stanley and Challis, Idaho, 2004.

Hay contributes strong formal elements to the scenic grandeur of the western landscape: as lumpy, fragrant hillocks in the Big Hole country; as staddled cottages near Jackson, Wyoming; as loaves baked under the semi-desert sun of Idaho and Oregon; or as powerful, simple squares and cylinders, assembled into battlements under the big, dry sky. In conclusion, here is a sampler of those multifarious shapes, free of the simplifying texture of plastic which protects the wetter hay of the old world west.
 Haystacks, Big Hole Valley, Montana, 2004.  Haystacks near Jackson, Wyoming, 2003. Chopped and moulded haystacks, near Challis, Idaho, 2004.

 Round bales, Utica, Montana, 2000.  Balestacks, old homestead, near Swan River, Idaho, 2004. Balestacks, near Tetonia, Idaho, 2004.


Posted by Alan Ritch at September 17, 2004 06:25 PM