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The family that hays together

Richelle Barrett for Progressive Cattleman Published on 06 September 2016

Haying has lasted unusually long for us this year. Thanks to a cool, long spring and some well-timed rains in May and June, we ended up with a bumper crop of grass-alfalfa hay this year.

Some other poorly timed rains in July slowed progress down, but unlike most of our friends and neighbors, many of the crazy hail and wind storms missed us, leaving minimal damage to our windrows. By the time you will be reading this, we will have just wrapped up with the actual swathing and baling part of the job and will probably be starting to pick bales off the field.

As a young girl, I loved haying season because it meant I got to ride in the swather with my dad or in the baler with my mom. When I was younger, my dad and uncle worked together putting up hay – small square bales to be exact (we used to feed with a team and wagon, but that’s another story). While I didn’t spend a lot of time in the equipment, I learned to make a mean no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookie. Mom and I spent a lot of time getting meals ready for the guys, and if I wasn’t helping her, I was probably sleeping in the swather with my dad. I have some very fond memories of hot days spent in the field cutting feed for our cattle. Haying has always been a family affair.

Fast forward a few years later, some major equipment changes and a smaller crew – my dad decided about 19 years ago that square bales were too much work for him and my mom to handle. They bred, then sold, the work horses. We purchased a round baler and a Haybuster. Things would forever be different, but we still worked as a family to get the crop put up.

My dad employed me to drive the grain truck while he picked bales off the fields, and I hauled bales to the haystacks. As with everything a ranch kid learns, there was a slight learning curve. I admit that I lost a bale or two when I hit a ditch a little too fast. That old grain truck had two radio stations – an oldies rock station out of Canada and an oldies country station out of Great Falls – and now I can sing along to every Buddy Holly, Beatles and Waylon Jennings song ever produced. I hauled bales for my dad every summer for several years, and to this day, no one drives that old yellow Chevy grain truck like I did.

I suspect he put me in the grain truck because he knew, more than anyone, just how mechanically challenged his daughter was (well, sorry to say that hasn’t changed). He is also a real stickler for straight windrows and, as I like to tease him, will probably never let me run his swather again.

Like all crops, raising hay is such a crapshoot. Will we get enough moisture this winter? Runoff in the spring? Hay is just as much at the mercy of summer heat and thunderstorms as any other crop, albeit slightly more forgiving when it gets lodged or hail damaged. We are blessed to have a bumper crop this year – just last year we were buying what we could and weren’t sure we would make it through the winter. Truth be told, had we had a tougher winter, we would have been in trouble.

And although haying has taken a lot longer than what any of us expected, and I know my dad and husband are well past tired of it, I am thankful my girls have had ample opportunities to ride in the equipment with their dad and grandpa. I hope they, too, will grow up with fond memories of making hay, and that someday I will get to watch them take pride in a perfectly straight windrow and beautifully round bales. They might not ever know how much work feeding cattle with a team and a wagon is, or how to find a low gear as not to buck their dad off the back of the bale pickup, but they will learn to appreciate all the work that goes into making food for the animals that are our food. And really, I can’t ask for much more than that.  end mark

Richelle Barrett is a blogger and photographer from Havre, Montana.

PHOTO: The hay season’s success may change year to year, but time spent in the swather with Dad is always time put to good use. Photo by Richelle Barrett.