The Beauty of the Bale

A hydraulic-powered bale ejector shoots bale after bale skyward to arc gracefully into the trailing wagon.

Stacks are stunning but bales are better, says this seasoned hay-scene spotter

When it comes to hay, dairy farmers have more in common with fashion designers than they do with cows. Both are always thinking several seasons ahead. Cows think only a few hours ahead.

In the world of fashion, beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder. But in the world of bales, beauty depends on the judges. The best qualified judges may well be the cows and horses who eat them day after day; for them, beauty and flavor go hand in hand. For the farmers whose livelihoods depend on the price of bales, beauty rises and falls with the auction bid. And for those who actually haul and heave the damn things all day long, beauty may not even be a consideration.

But for me, a guy who likes to take pictures; and probably for you, a person who enjoys tooling around the back roads on a fresh summer evening, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Few things give the eye more pleasure than a field set up like a jewelry store display case to reveal string necklaces of bales stretching from roadside to distant tree line. Monet, van Gogh, Pissarro, Gauguin and other artists have long been intrigued by the beauty of hay being harvested.

Finding Art in a Batch of Bales
I find that hay (and straw) is best summed up by its packaged form – the bale. The bale can take many shapes. My favorite remains the small square bale, which may or may not actually be square. There are also large square bales, of which I have never seen a square one but I must admit to the possibility (which begs the question as to why it isn’t called a “cube”).

But rising quickly in my esteem is the circular bale, which isn’t actually circular but cylindrical – close enough. A subset of the circular bale is the plastic, shrink-wrapped bale, which the farmer often arranges in a long white tube that resembles a gigantic fishing lure. Or, they may end up in a stack along the barn, like so many packages of provolone cheese on a Wegmans’ shelf.

Large swaths of plastic bales seem out of place in a field. Imagine sailboats still in their winter shrink-wrap, bobbing on the lake in summer. But plastic bales are practical, and they do charm the palate of the dairy cow. That first cut of hay is the most nutritious and most delicious. Wrapping it in airtight plastic not only best preserves its nutrition (and the hay itself) but adds to its flavor by favoring fermentation. And who among us doesn’t favor a little fermentation?

Even without plastic, those large cylindrical bales hold up well when stored outside. That’s because they’re so large that even if the outer two or three inches are lost to decay, nearly 90 percent of the bale remains good. Small hay bales need a hayloft.

The Heavy Lifter
Buckwheat Freier knows small bales well. As does his mother Lisa. In his mid-20s, Buckwheat, in name and form, fits the definition of “strapping.” Buckwheat was nicknamed by his big brother, Bean. His real name is Louis – after his grandfather. He’s exceedingly polite and quiet. Driving by their Seneca Falls farm last summer, I saw them baling straw and skidded to a stop. A complete stranger, I hopped out and asked if I could photograph them. They looked me over and said no problem. Camera in hand, I began following them around.

Lisa Freier later told me “All three Freier boys grew up on the back of a wagon. They were riding long before they were big enough to throw bales.  By the age of 10 or 12 years old they were loading straw wagons by themselves. It was a great accomplishment when they could get the bale up onto the fifth tier of the wagon. See, that tier was higher than they were tall. When they accomplished that feat it was like they changed from boys to men, by the expressions on their faces.”

That was then. Now Buckwheat looks like he has stepped out of a 1940s movie poster. Wearing a torn, sleeveless T-shirt and clasping a large and menacing bale hook in each hand, he towers over me as he stands on the back of the wagon framed by a darkening sky. He is waiting for his mom to turn the tractor and head down a fresh windrow.

The wagon holds about 140 bales. Buckwheat has already filled it twice today. If the weather cooperates, he’ll double that amount. Each bale weighs about 50 pounds. Fifty times 560 equals a lot of sore muscles for an inexperienced farm hand. No problem for Buckwheat. Tomorrow, his brother’s girlfriend April and family friend Mike, who are currently unloading the hay wagons and sending the bales via a conveyor belt (called an elevator in farm lingo) into the barn loft, may feel a twinge here and there – if they can get out of bed.

Most of the Freier straw bales are headed to East Coast race tracks. Easy to handle, small bales are prized by horse owners and small dairy farmers. On the ground, I dart around the tractor-pulled hay wagon searching for a good photo angle of Buckwheat plucking bales from the ejector belt and flipping them onto a steadily growing stack. He works at a brisk, steady, consistent pace, and then all of a sudden everything accelerates. His mother speeds up the tractor; he flips bales faster and looks anxiously at the sky. Now I, too, feel a few drops of rain.

Rain can spoil their entire wagonload, their entire crop if it’s really ill-timed. Rain is also a problem for newly cut hay, but only if it persists for days and prevents the hay from eventually being dried.

Buckwheat leaps off and dashes to his pickup, hollering at me, “Let’s go.”  I jump in the truck and before I’ve settled in, he’s hitched it to the wagon and raced off to the barn to tuck away a full load of dry straw.

Inspirational
Organic dairy farmer Tim Stoltman relies on high-quality hay to get his herd through the winter. In the summer, the herd, to qualify its milk as organic, must get 30 percent of its food by grazing. But summer doesn’t last forever. “Dairy cows, especially on an organic farm, need high-quality hay,” says Stoltman. “Early hay has the best quality – it’s the most nutritious.” Now, well into middle age, he, too, has been farming since he was a kid.

Tim prefers small square bales because they’re easy to handle. It’s early December when he shows me his hay barn. It’s stuffed to the rafters with nearly 8,000 bales, enough to feed his dairy herd of 40 cows until the spring pasture comes in.

Commercial hayers attack the harvest like they’re down by seven points with a minute to go in a playoff game. It’s go, go, go, hurry, hurry, hurry. A commercial hayer may need to harvest hundreds, even a few thousand acres. And, since hay fields across the Finger Lakes tend to reach prime condition at about the same time and stay in that prime condition for only a week or so, they can only hope a good weather window appears so they can “make hay while the sun shines.”

Standing on the back of a hay wagon hauling and stacking bale after bale all day long is a dirty, dusty, itchy, scratchy, sneezy, sweaty, back-breaking, knee-twisting job. Sitting in the cab of a gleaming, high tech, air-conditioned, GPS-guided modern hay machine could be seen as a cool, comfortable, clean, cushy job – but only if you’ve been standing on the back of a hay wagon all day.

Just as haying has inspired artists, so, too, has it inspired designers of farm equipment. On the web pages of New Holland and John Deere, you can find a wide range of hardware just for bales: things like a bale squeeze, bale hugger, bale spear, bale carrier, bale unroller, in-line bale wrapper, bale processor, bale wagon, bale loader, bale stacker, bale thrower. I tend to prefer a bale hugger over a bale spear.

But my real preference is to be a bale watcher. I think the best time to watch is late in the day. After all, the hard work is done. If I time it right, I might find a full moon rising over an upward sloping field filled with newly made bales. If I get lucky, an Amish carriage will clatter down the road, and if I get really lucky, a team of horses – caught between a setting sun and a rising moon – will be pulling a fully-loaded wagon back to the barn.


story and photos by Derek Doeffinger