Making hay under a darkening sky

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The Independent Online
PITY all haymakers who miss the boat - as we almost did this year. I say 'almost' for it is too soon to tell whether or not our labours will bear worthwhile fruit; but even if our hay does turn out all right, it will hardly pay for all the paroxysms of anxiety we went through in our attempts to snatch it.

Our troubles began when the heatwave of June came to an end. By then most farmers in the neighbourhood had made wonderful hay: all they had needed to do was cut their grass, leave it to wilt for a couple of days under the baking sun, scatter it, let it lie another day, and then row it up and bale it. So much perfect hay was made that the price fell to 50p a bale (compared with the normal winter high of pounds 2), and farmers were struggling to dispose of their surplus.

We, however, had been caught out by the fact that our six-acre field was not ready in time: we had not been able to shut it up - that is, take out the sheep and let the grass grow - until rather late, so when the fine weather ended the crop was scarcely tall enough to cut.

This left us anxiously watching weather forecasts. For week after week belts of rain came sweeping in from the Atlantic, with never a clear window in prospect.

Robin, the tireless contractor whom we had engaged, rang up from time to time to say that if it did not rain on Monday, or Tuesday, or whatever day seemed pivotal, he would come and cut the grass on the morning after. Again and again deluges intervened, and he held off - rightly, for, as everyone who has tried it knows, the worst fate is to have heavy rain fall on cut grass, and it is far better to leave a field standing until the weather has settled.

At last a window appeared. The prognostications, though not good, were less bad than they had been. Robin arrived with his tractor and went into action, using a device called a conditioner, which leaves the cut grass fluffed up, rather than flat on the ground in the manner of older mowers, and so gives the curing process a day's start. That night it rained, but only a little, and not enough to do any damage.

The next two days were fine and dry, though not as hot as we would have liked. The hay dried well, and at noon on the second day Robin came to scatter the rows about. Then in the evening he returned and - as he put it - dyked it up, or collected it into thick rows for baling.

Now began our most vulnerable period. With the hay knocked about and piled up, heavy rain would certainly do harm and set us back indefinitely. We needed at least one more fine, hot day - preferably two.

By evening it was clear that we were not going to get what we wanted. The forecast was for a fine morning, but with cloud cover increasing and rain by tea time. What to do then - wait and hope the forecast was wrong, or take a chance on the hay being fit and bale before the rain?

The crucial day dawned dry but not very bright, and without the drying wind that we needed. Our spirits fell. I rang the local weather service in search of more detail, but its message was much the same: increasing cloud, drizzle, showers.

Gradually the morning brightened. The air remained obstinately still, but the sun came out and shone hotly. The hay began to give off that wonderful biscuity smell which is the best sign. At 11am Robin arrived, inspected it, and decided that it would probably be ready to bale by 2.30pm.

With increasing nervousness we watched the clouds build up from the west. Twice I went out and spent some minutes kicking up rows into even more airy confections. The hay still looked perilously raw to me . . . but it was drying by the minute, and that smell was reassuring.

Robin returned punctually, snatched up an armful and loudly exclaimed: 'Oh, bugger ar] That's fit.' Off he went with the baler, clattering and clanking away into the distance.

At once I suspected that we were in trouble, for the bales turned out to be of a prodigious weight. Forty or fifty pounds is a good weight for a hay bale: something you can lift and hoist without too much difficulty. But these were 70-pounders, at least. Besides, there was something sinister about their colour: the hay, prettily light grey-green when loose, seemed to darken dangerously when compressed.

All the same, there was nothing for it but to start carting, so my wife and I began loading leaden monsters on to a trailer and trundling them back to the barn. Instead of stacking them neatly, however, we stood them on end so that air could circulate round them - for if damp hay is packed down tight, it soon begins to heat, and even if it does not go so far as to catch fire, it can easily become hot enough to turn fousty and be spoilt.

The trouble with loose stacking is that it takes up a great deal of room. By the time we had 150 bales under cover, it looked as through we were going to run out of space. We worked like slaves, heaving, loading, unloading, stacking: such was our absorption that I walked into the end of an angle-iron protruding from the trailer, and inflicted a gash on my shin which needed hospital treatment the next day.

All the time the sky was darkening, and by about 4pm it looked as though a storm was about to break. Robin jumped down from his tractor and announced: 'It's gone dead.' I felt it, too: a change had come over the atmosphere. From being fairly dry, the air had suddenly filled with moisture. Deciding that he could not do any more, he covered the machine and began to help us with bales already done.

We sweated and cursed, watching the sky, which by then was black as night. A few drops of rain did fall, but then a miraculous little breeze sprang up and the air cleared again so well that at about five Robin decided he could go on.

By 7pm he had finished. His counter had notched up more than 400 bales, of which we had 250 - all we needed - under cover. The rest we piled in a rectangular stack for him to take away at his leisure.

We kicked ourselves when, after all the alarms, no rain fell during the night; it seemed that we could have given the hay another day to mature. Yet the next morning was dull, and in the evening came the predicted deluge, so that we were glad we had gone ahead and felt a sense of triumph.

Yet after a few more days, fresh doubts set in. Although so loosely stacked, our bales began to heat, and the glorious biscuity smell turned sour. To give ourselves more space, I carted 20 bales across the yard and stood them individually in the woodshed, then burrowed in and shifted all the rest so that they had more room to breathe. Already they had lost weight, but a few had that sinister dead look that betokens mildew.

Now, rearranged and aired afresh, they should be all right. But the 64,000-dollar question is this: come winter, will the animals eat them? In general, cattle are the least finicky about hay, sheep the next best consumers, and horses the most fastidious.

We still face the possibility that the hay may prove unpalatable, and that we may have to burn it. If that happens, we shall be left with the knowledge not only that our prodigious efforts were wasted, but also that we would have done far better to buy in alien hay at 50p a bale in the first place.