Early hay balers used strength of horses
It’s summer. Fields throughout western Colorado have been cut, and the hay baled, using various forms of modern technology — small bales, large bales, round and square bales, stack wagons and people power.
Every year, when I’m picking up hay for my horses — or, this year, supervising as two hard-working teenaged boys put it up — I wonder about haying in the old days.
For many decades, that meant using horses to put up loose hay. A horse-drawn mower would cut the hay, while another team would be employed to pull a rake to turn the hay into a windrow. Later, after the hay was sufficiently dry, the horses would push a buck rake to gather the hay from the windrow and carry or push it to the stack pile.
In the lower elevations of western Colorado and eastern Utah, the stack piles were often outside. The first photo on this page shows men stacking hay at the Colorado Pear Co., or COPECO, north of Grand Junction early in the 20th century.
On farms in the east, and many in the mountains of Colorado, however, the hay was stored in a barn. A wagon carrying the loose hay was drawn up outside the barn, and a hay grapple dangling from a rope would drop to the wagon, then pull up the hay to a loft on the second story of the barn.
The hay grapple, like every other piece of technology, was initially operated by horses. For many centuries, horses were the most important technology in agriculture.
Later, mechanized equipment such as steam engines, tractors and trucks took over the horses’ roles.
Still, putting up loose hay was the preferred technology, especially in the West, well into the 20th century.
I have friends, not much older than my 64 years, who grew up on ranches in Colorado and Nebraska, who were still putting up loose hay when they were young.
Often, I have been irked when I read something that discussed using baled hay much earlier than I believed the technology existed.
Except I was wrong.
I came across the second photo on this page while visiting the Museum of Moab earlier this year. The caption with the photo describes it as an ox team hauling a large hay wagon on Main Street in Moab, Utah, in 1881. Those are clearly bales of hay on the wagon. I started doing some research.
The first baling machines, called hay presses, were constructed in the middle of the 19th century, according to a website called Farm Collector, at farmcollector.com.
“Most of the earliest hay presses were stationary units built into a barn and extending two to three stories into the hayloft,” the site said. “Generally, a team of horses was used to raise a press weight, which was then dropped to compress the hay.”
Often, these bales weighed as much as 300 pounds, and were tied with up to five strands of wire.
Later in the 19th century, more portable hay presses were developed. They weren’t like modern balers that travel through a field and bale hay as they go.
Instead, they were hauled to a field by teams of horses. Then the loose hay was brought to the hay press, then pressed and tied into bales.
Along with my wife, Judy, and some friends, I had the opportunity to see a late-19th century hay press at the Wyman Living History Museum outside Craig.
Owner Lou Wyman showed us how the press would have operated. A horse walking in a circle drove the pressing rod — an iron bar about a dozen feet long — which compressed the hay into a bundle about the size of today’s small hay bales.
In addition to the horse, it required two people, one on each side of the press to tie the wires on the bale once it was compressed. The horse had to step over the pressing rod — about 18 inches off the ground — with each circle the animal made.
I’ve seen photos of other early hay presses in which a horse walked on a treadmill to power the machine.
All this seems like an awful lot of horse and manpower, compared to just putting up loose hay.
Why bother with the additional effort of pressing and tying bales?
Several people who grew up ranching in the first half of the last century answered that question. The loose stacks were fine for feeding critters on the farm or ranch. But loose hay was hard to transport any distance — either to feed animals that had been moved, or to sell. So it was baled for transportation.
By early in the 20th century, steam-powered balers were available, and many were hauled from farm to farm by custom operators.
But these machines still required that the loose hay be picked up and brought to the balers, and bales still had to be tied by hand.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that a couple of men in Iowa and Pennsylvania, working independently of each other, began constructing devices that could automatically tie the bales and could pick up the hay in the field.
The New Holland Machine Co. purchased the rights to one of those devices and began manufacturing the first modern balers in 1940.
Today, hay can be mowed, raked, baled, picked up and stored in a barn or haystack all by machines. But, if one doesn’t have the latest equipment, it’s good to have access to some strong teenagers who are willing workers.
Information for this column came from Farm Collector, bit.ly/hayhistory; from Lou Wyman and the Wyman Living History Museum in Craig; and from the Museum of Moab and the Museums of Western Colorado.