I could smell the field before I reached it. It was a hot day and despite the strong breeze the temperature had definitely crossed the line into uncomfortable. All over the patchwork Aberdeenshire countryside men and machines buzzed around like worker bees, feverishly making their winter hay supplies. As I drove along the road with all my windows down in a forlorn attempt to stay cool that heavenly scent of cut grass and drying hay suddenly filled the car. It was intoxicating. I couldn’t breathe it in deep enough; I wasn’t so much drinking in the aroma as gulping it.
The field in question was one of many such that I passed, each at varying stages of the process; cutting, turning, baling. Haymaking is a classic part of farming and, even today with the large modern machinery being used, remains emblematic of rural life. Very occasionally it is possible to come across a farm still making hay using small bales. Even more rarely are smallholdings where the hay is made up into stooks.
In one or two cases as I drove along I came across farmers who were making haylage – hay that is wrapped in plastic and allowed to ensile. An excellent and detailed account of round-bale haylage making can be found here. Anyone who has put their nose to a good bale of haylage will never forget that fabulous smell of apples that comes from it. A really well-made bale of haylage has a smell that is mouth-watering.
The best hayfields or meadows have a diverse range of grasses and flowering plants. This not only leads to good soil quality (for example where nitrogen-fixing plants are present) but is also a rich environment for wildlife. A good meadow will have a rich array of insect life that will in turn pull in a variety of birds and mammals. Haymaking from diverse grassland is therefore very good for the wider ecology and environment.
I’m no expert in the art of hay making but I have done it a couple of times. And therein lies an immediate question: art or science? A blend of both (plus an enormous amount of luck with the weather), hay making remains one of the most white-knuckle jobs on the farming calendar. Get it right and the barns are filled with fabulous green hay to sustain the stock through the winter. Get it wrong and it means buying the stuff in from neighbouring farms, seriously eroding what narrow margins still remain in farming. Trying to find that perfect window of opportunity in the fickle British weather leads to many nervous days on farms and smallholdings the length and breadth of these islands. The grade of hay a person is likely to get is a favourite topic for leather-skinned farmers to debate while leaning on gates and Land Rover bonnets.
A week of strong sunshine, especially if accompanied by a good breeze, and quality hay should be in the bag. An unexpected bout of rain mid-way through can be a disaster however. The thing about hay is that not all bales are equal, and I have seen both ends of the hay quality spectrum sometimes within the same barn. Really good hay is green, the grass leaves are intact and there is very little dust. And it smells just so….aaaah…. I would love to know what that aroma fires off in the brain to make it such a universally-loved scent. I’m pretty sure if someone could bottle it then they’d sell lorry loads of it. Fresh hay aftershave…ha ha. Why not?
Really bad hay is dusty and often mottled or black with mould. The dust comes from mould spores and/or shattered leaves. ‘Leaf shatter’ often occurs where the hay has been turned too many times, usually because it was wet before bailing. Black hay was damp hay; feed that to your stock and invite coughs and chest infections, to the animals and the person feeding them.
Another big risk with hay-making is that of fire from baling wet grass. When grass is baled damp, especially in large round bales, the natural yeasts on the leaves cause it to start fermenting. This process generates heat and, if the bales are packed tightly together in a barn with poor ventilation, spontaneous combustion can result. Barn fires are more rare than they used to be although still not unheard of.
But on this day there was no drama; only blue skies, hot sun and contented farmers.