Farm Life and the American Work Ethic

 

If you pay attention to the trends in agriculture in rural America, you are probably aware that the number of farms in the country, which consolidated sharply between 1950 and 1970 and declined markedly in the 1980s, has been steadily declining since 2000, hovering around 2 million but slowly declining after a significant uptick in 2007. Two million farms are feeding a nation of 300 million and indeed the world. We are the top exporter of all agricultural products worldwide, far ahead of #2 (the Netherlands) and #3 (Germany), and doing it with an astonishingly tiny farm workforce. You might think that this means those few people work like, well, workhorses.

And you’d be right. I had the pleasure, no, the advantage of growing up on a dairy farm that had survived that consolidation between the ’50s and ’70s that I mentioned above. We mostly kept that iconic breed of American dairy cow, the Holstein, with some Brown Swiss, some Jerseys, and some Guernseys to keep the gene pool healthy.

Milking them every day meant, in the months that were not winter, getting up at 4 (if not earlier) to drive them in from the field to the milking yard. This usually entailed finding them. Now, some of them were cooperative and would spend the night in the field not far from the feed yard where we parked the forage wagons they ate from, but some would seek out the farthest reaches of the rectangular 80-acre summer pasture, and some would even try to get through the fence into the woods.

Finding them all — and you had to, because they had to be milked — could take 90 minutes. Then came the milking, which took about four and a half to five hours, then clean up, which including removing always gigantic amounts of manure from the milking stalls (this was an ongoing process while we milked in truth), spreading manure, refilling feed chutes, prepping the tanks for the extraction by the milk tanker truck that came every day, feeding the calves, moving the calves occasionally — from stalls for the little ones to the larger yard for the “teenage cows” — and various tractor maintenance tasks, along with mixing the feed (corn had to be ground up and mixed with mineral supplement in our GEHL feed grinder — terrific piece of machinery), and that was just the bare minimum before noon on a day when absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened.

In the summer and fall, we would add baling hay to this set of activities. How that usually went is that dad would mow (he never let me mow hay) on one day, while our hand, Mark, and I would finish milking and, if drying weather was right, I would rake it the next morning while he and Mark milked. That afternoon, if drying weather was right, we (my dad, Mark, his nephews, my brother and anyone else who was available to help) would bale it.

These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building and it was also a prescription for terrific calluses on your hands. Leather gloves? After a while, they’re built-in. Getting all of these tasks accomplished with the manpower we had (sometimes there were only four of us) meant that in the warm — or let’s say not dark and freezing cold — months, our workday was sometimes 18 hours long. The end effect of it all was that it produced physical toughness and hammered home the importance of doing one’s work well and until it was done.

Now, ours was a small-ish farm and dairy operation – with only a few hundred acres and at most about 81 cows being milked at a time, usually only between 60 and 70, sometimes as few as 50. It was not at all atypical of dairy farms in the Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s. Growing up meant working there from the time I was old enough to carry a milk bucket, which meant about age 8, and being steeped in a domestic culture of constant, meaningful work.

You were constantly expected to pull your weight and more and constantly looking for ways to do that if you had any self-respect or wanted respect from others. The harshest insults that could get thrown at a farmer or farmhand when I lived this life were that you were “lazy” or “a whiner,” usually expressed in what you’d call earthier language.

Farm life inculcated an unkillable work ethic in people who sought to live it right and I have heard from many who come from my kind of background that employers who know their hawks from handsaws consider mention of “farming background” to be a decisive plus in potential hires.

Now, I am not going to argue that the decline in the percentage of farmers in our society means that we are going to raise a generation of indolent, soft characters with a poor work ethic … though I am sorely tempted to. There are other ways of life that develop a strong work ethic. Military life for one and any kind of family business that involves a skilled trade.

Farm life, though, carried with it something of a connection to nature and work that most of these ways of life don’t. There’s a reason a great share of our treasury of metaphors and images comes from the agrarian life. It’s not just a vague romanticism, but a deep realization, I think, that this lifestyle ties people to the elemental foundations of life quite directly, and demands much of those that maintain them.

Note: This was supposed to appear back on the 9th as my contribution for the March Group Writing Project. Alas, work, of all things, kept me occupied writing for Euros from sunrise to well after sunset until tonight. 

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I’ve hauled hay both ways, throwing it up on the hay wagon, and being on the back of a truck with a lift that picked up the hay.  I’d much rather throw it on a wagon.  Dry hay is better than green hay.

    • #1
  2. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    For me this is one of the top couple dozen articles I’ve ever read on Ricochet.

    • #2
  3. Brian Wyneken Member
    Brian Wyneken
    @BrianWyneken

    Not to mention the missing digits . . . . (my departed dairy farmer father-in-law:  “I cut this one off with a table saw, and these two showing people how it happened”).

    Great post!

    • #3
  4. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Hartmann von Aue: And you’d be right. I had the pleasure, no, the advantage of growing up on a dairy farm that had survived that consolidation between the 50s and 70s that I mentioned above.

    The new MVP Dairy Farm is located on US 33 near Neptune Ohio. It is YUGE, with 4,500 cows in 6 barns. Our local milk prices here in Fort Wayne IN have gone from ~$3.00+ / gallon down to $2.50 and sometimes $2.00 on sale. Not sure if the MVP facility is a reason for the price drop.

    In the last year large eggs are also very cheap, $0.49/dozen at Aldi’s and $0.69 at Kroger. 

    • #4
  5. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    Not to mention the missing digits . . . . (my departed dairy farmer father-in-law: “I cut this one off with a table saw, and these two showing people how it happened”).

    Great post!

    Were they significant digits?  (Sorry, couldn’t help myself).

    • #5
  6. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    The inevitable rabbit trails that crop up in YouTube have put me onto several channels about running a modern dairy farm (mostly family run)*. Some of your numbers are interesting in that context. One farm that runs a channel (Acres of Clay Homestead in Michigan) says they milk about 300 cows and grow most of their own feed using only mom, dad, and four children (two young adult sons, a teenaged daughter, and an almost teen boy). They have no regular hired help, but may have occasional on demand hired help. Mechanization seems to have greatly increased the amount of work that a family can do today compared to your experience a few decades ago. But dad seems to spend a lot of his time maintaining and repairing that equipment. 

    The one farm seemed to have quite a variety of breeds. A recent episode said that their mix of breeds yields a higher protein content in the milk, even though they produce less milk by weight, and apparently the protein content is important to the use to which their buyer puts the milk (I think it goes to make a particular type of cheese). 

    * I was looking at videos about driving cross-country tractor trailer trucks and one of the sidebar suggestions was a video from the farm about mom teaching the teenaged girl how to drive one of the trucks used during harvest of the feed crop. 

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This post could be an entry in Mike Rowe’s dirty jobs series, but it is actually an entry in our Group Writing Series under the March 2020 Group Writing Theme: “Working.” There are plenty of open days, so get busy and work it! Stop by and sign up now.
    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I’ve hauled hay both ways, throwing it up on the hay wagon, and being on the back of a truck with a lift that picked up the hay. I’d much rather throw it on a wagon. Dry hay is better than green hay.

    You’d better not stack that green hay in your barn, because it’s likely to start on fire and burn your barn down. Put it outside in a stack, and it’ll start on fire on the coldest day of winter, when it’s partly encrusted in ice.   Depends on what you mean by green, but you can probably tell by the heft if it’s not dry enough. 

    At the moment my hands are pretty soft, but those calluses from baling twine (and from four summers of masonry and concrete construction labor) will come back quickly. I’ll start spading my garden soon, and I’ll have to be careful not to do too much the first day or two, but then those calluses will be back and I won’t have that as an excuse for slacking off.  I’ll think of something else, though. 

    • #8
  9. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I’ve hauled hay both ways, throwing it up on the hay wagon, and being on the back of a truck with a lift that picked up the hay. I’d much rather throw it on a wagon. Dry hay is better than green hay.

    You’d better not stack that green hay in your barn, because it’s likely to start on fire and burn your barn down. Put it outside in a stack, and it’ll start on fire on the coldest day of winter, when it’s partly encrusted in ice. Depends on what you mean by green, but you can probably tell by the heft if it’s not dry enough.

    At the moment my hands are pretty soft, but those calluses from baling twine (and from four summers of masonry and concrete construction labor) will come back quickly. I’ll start spading my garden soon, and I’ll have to be careful not to do too much the first day or two, but then those calluses will be back and I won’t have that as an excuse for slacking off. I’ll think of something else, though.

    I have not baled hay in nearly 30 years and I still have traces of the calluses I developed from baling. 

    • #9
  10. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    Mechanization seems to have greatly increased the amount of work that a family can do today compared to your experience a few decades ago.

    It reminds me how amazing it is that Hayek and the other economists were able to explain things like this by a single process.

    Hayek would say that this is a case of an inevitable evolution of a free society:

    • increased prosperity creates more savings and capital investment
    • that investment
      • creates a bigger, more complex and more roundabout productive structure (point-in-time view of the economic data)
      • increases the time required by production* (time-dependent view of the economic data).
      • increases the value of the consumer goods produced from the same amount of labor and resources.

    But dad seems to spend a lot of his time maintaining and repairing that equipment.

    Hayek would say that the labor has shifted from low-order production processes–those that will finish quickly–to higher-order production processes.  Producing new capital goods, maintaining them, and replacing them.

    *The same number of people, but with their labor and resources being spread out over many more production processes, thus increasing the time of production of a given thing.  It’s counter-intuitive that economic growth comes from increasing the time of production. That sounds at first like lower productivity, not higher.  In fact, lower labor productivity (productivity re the only thing that matters to humans: final consumption goods) for an initial period, the time of investment, is always required to increase static productivity in the future.

    • #10
  11. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Great post and all true.  I just worked a small cattle ranch until old enough to work for the park service then construction in the Jackson Hole. Sun rise to sun set 5 and a half days a week.  The half day was only about 6 hours.   Loved every moment, and learned to love work, which is good because at 14 I was very lazy.  I din’t like milking the cow but I even got that eventually.   Did what ever needed doing, incredibly ineptly, loved irrigating the land, building fence, which was just pounding sharp posts in the deep rich soil and stringing barbed wire.  Then toward the end of summer,  haying which, as dirty and grungy as it was,  I loved.   I raked the hay the boss had cut then he  bailed the rows I’d made, and in a few days I’d  run along the sled tossing the bails up,  the Indians stacked it, the boss drove.  Then we’d stack it on the second floor of the barn.  Football practice began  as soon as  I got back to Denver, hardly broke a sweat, fortunately didn’t discover how relatively strong I’d become.  Life was good.

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Hartmann von Aue: Two million farms are feeding a nation of 300 million and indeed the world. We are the top exporter of all agricultural products worldwide, far ahead of #2 (the Netherlands) and #3 (Germany), and doing it with an astonishingly tiny farm workforce.

    It so happens that a few days ago I bought this book for my Kindle queue: Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges) by Venus Bivar (2018).

    I haven’t started it yet, but according to the American Historical Review reviewer, France at some not-too-distant time was #2 behind the United States:

    Bivar recounts how “backward” French farmers “still mired in the nineteenth century” definitely “lagged behind” American, Danish, and Dutch counterparts in both production and distribution in 1945. Yet in a mere generation, France “managed to close the gap and catch up,” becoming the world’s second-most important agricultural exporter after the United States.

    Do you know of a web site that tracks all of these changes?

    Apparently it’s a story of centralization and consolidation of agriculture at the heavy hand of the French government; hence the resistance on the part of small farmers. Stalin had his campaign to eliminate the kulaks so he could consolidate Soviet agriculture. In the United States, Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out,” but the government played a lesser role, doing it mostly with subsidies and price supports. And maybe France was somewhere in between.

    • #12
  13. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):
    Not to mention the missing digits . . . . (my departed dairy farmer father-in-law: “I cut this one off with a table saw, and these two showing people how it happened”).

    You don’t want to be feeling under your work to see if you have the blade set deep enough.

    • #13
  14. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: Two million farms are feeding a nation of 300 million and indeed the world. We are the top exporter of all agricultural products worldwide, far ahead of #2 (the Netherlands) and #3 (Germany), and doing it with an astonishingly tiny farm workforce.

    It so happens that a few days ago I bought this book for my Kindle queue: Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges) by Venus Bivar (2018).

    I haven’t started it yet, but according to the American Historical Review reviewer, France at some not-too-distant time was #2 behind the United States:

    Bivar recounts how “backward” French farmers “still mired in the nineteenth century” definitely “lagged behind” American, Danish, and Dutch counterparts in both production and distribution in 1945. Yet in a mere generation, France “managed to close the gap and catch up,” becoming the world’s second-most important agricultural exporter after the United States.

    Do you know of a web site that tracks all of these changes?

    Apparently it’s a story of centralization and consolidation of agriculture at the heavy hand of the French government; hence the resistance on the part of small farmers. Stalin had his campaign to eliminate the kulaks so he could consolidate Soviet agriculture. In the United States, Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out,” but the government played a lesser role, doing it mostly with subsidies and price supports. And maybe France was somewhere in between.

    Dad got stationed in France in 1958 or so.  When we first moved there, we lived in a little 3 story, 6 apartment building.  During haying season, we could look out the back windows and watch men and women pitch hay up on a horse-drawn wagon with pitchforks.

    • #14
  15. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Oh. Wow. You have describe my life as a child and teen EXACTLY!  Only, we just had three dozen cows, mostly Guernsey and Jersey. But my dad added Brown Swiss and a few Holsteins. He was going for the butterfat bonus that our creamery gave.

    But, the early rising (I got to sleep-in until 5:30 A.M.) and the hay hauling, and the grain feeding. All of it! It was endless. My parents and my grandparents had been dairy farmers. However, none of us girls (six girls and two boys) married farmers…Our younger brother had already taken over our parents’ farm when our dad died at age 61. And we were all glad that he wanted it. He increased the herd size to 200, but still only survived for a little less than 20 more years until he, too, had to sell the cows or lose the land.

    Dairy farming is either a Big Business, or a niche business–grass-fed-sell-your-milk-to-a-co-op, or- some specialty-restaurant kind of world now.

    But, we always say how blessed we were to have been raised doing all that work. We grew up knowing that we could conquer anything the world threw at us because we’d spent our lives till then working that hard.

    • #15
  16. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    One summer, my sister and I decided to count how many bales we hauled–onto the wagon, stack them there, put them on the bale elevator up to the shed, then stack them again–so it was multiple handlings of each bale.  But the number got so high, we decided that we really didn’t want to know! But, we were in fabulous physical shape! I’m sure we could have bench-pressed any stupid boy that might have wanted to treat us badly.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    By the way, those would be heavy hay bales. I’ve lifted enough 95lb. bags of Portland cement and would rather lift hay bales any time.  Bags of mortar were closer to 70lb., but if I’m tossing them up to the 6th layer orhigher on a hay rack I’d still prefer a bale, unless it’s one that’s too wet to put safely in a stack.

    • #17
  18. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    By the way, those would be heavy hay bales. I’ve lifted enough 95lb. bags of Portland cement and would rather lift hay bales any time. Bags of mortar were closer to 70lb., but if I’m tossing them up to the 6th layer ore higher on a hay rack I’d still prefer a bale, unless it’s one that’s too wet to put safely in a stack.

    Down the hill at the Hardware Store, us older folks let the young ‘uns lift the cement and mortar.  I will however assist a lady by bringing her purchase of a small bag of nuts, bolts, and washers, or a furnace filter (the thin ones) up to the cashier.

    • #18
  19. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    By the way, those would be heavy hay bales. I’ve lifted enough 95lb. bags of Portland cement and would rather lift hay bales any time. Bags of mortar were closer to 70lb., but if I’m tossing them up to the 6th layer orhigher on a hay rack I’d still prefer a bale, unless it’s one that’s too wet to put safely in a stack.

    I’d say most of the hay bales I had any dealings with were around 60#.  That’s what we hoped for, anyway.

    • #19
  20. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    By the way, those would be heavy hay bales. I’ve lifted enough 95lb. bags of Portland cement and would rather lift hay bales any time. Bags of mortar were closer to 70lb., but if I’m tossing them up to the 6th layer orhigher on a hay rack I’d still prefer a bale, unless it’s one that’s too wet to put safely in a stack.

    I’d say most of the hay bales I had any dealings with were around 60#. That’s what we hoped for, anyway.

    That sounds about right, judging by my memory of the heft of the things. There were occasional bales that were a lot heavier, but that was usually something we shouldn’t have been baling. I don’t know if some square balers made other sizes, but all those that I encountered in the upper midwest were about the same size.  Sometimes we baled grasses rather than alfalfa, and I just don’t remember how those compared. If they were very different I’d probably have remembered. 

    • #20
  21. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    By the way, those would be heavy hay bales. I’ve lifted enough 95lb. bags of Portland cement and would rather lift hay bales any time. Bags of mortar were closer to 70lb., but if I’m tossing them up to the 6th layer orhigher on a hay rack I’d still prefer a bale, unless it’s one that’s too wet to put safely in a stack.

    I’d say most of the hay bales I had any dealings with were around 60#. That’s what we hoped for, anyway.

    That sounds about right, judging by my memory of the heft of the things. There were occasional bales that were a lot heavier, but that was usually something we shouldn’t have been baling. I don’t know if some square balers made other sizes, but all those that I encountered in the upper midwest were about the same size. Sometimes we baled grasses rather than alfalfa, and I just don’t remember how those compared. If they were very different I’d probably have remembered.

    The alfalfa bales were around 60-70 pounds. They weren’t too bad. But the ones that were made from timothy grass were heavier–my dad called them grain-hay, like they had two things growing together…I can’t remember. They were murder to haul. I was very glad to get to the end of the season when we only had to haul straw bales! They were so light! Although, up there in our high altitude (Wyoming, about 100 miles south of Yellowstone Park) we often hauled that last batch of straw in a snowstorm in late September.

    • #21
  22. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    One summer, my sister and I decided to count how many bales we hauled–onto the wagon, stack them there, put them on the bale elevator up to the shed, then stack them again–so it was multiple handlings of each bale. But the number got so high, we decided that we really didn’t want to know! But, we were in fabulous physical shape! I’m sure we could have bench-pressed any stupid boy that might have wanted to treat us badly.

    Yup. Farm work is a great way to get and stay in shape. I tried to stay outside and unload the wagons, generally by myself. I didn’t like the indoor work as much and only did it if I had to.  

    • #22
  23. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: These were the old-style bales: rectangular, bound with twine, and weighing 70 to 120 pounds each. Schlepping them across hay wagons, stacking them, unloading them and stacking them in the hay mow was a sure-fire prescription for weight loss and muscle building

    By the way, those would be heavy hay bales. I’ve lifted enough 95lb. bags of Portland cement and would rather lift hay bales any time. Bags of mortar were closer to 70lb., but if I’m tossing them up to the 6th layer orhigher on a hay rack I’d still prefer a bale, unless it’s one that’s too wet to put safely in a stack.

    I’d say most of the hay bales I had any dealings with were around 60#. That’s what we hoped for, anyway.

    I used values that gave about the average range. If the hay itself was too light, we got bales that only weighed 50 or 60 pounds and they tended to fall apart. If we set the baler to pack them too tight, we’d get bales that weighed 130 to 150 and they’d break the twine. Straw was always light, maybe 40 pounds a bale. We used one of the red-and-yellow New Holland balers that was probably vintage 1970. 

    • #23
  24. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Funny. I still remember our stacking pattern for the wagons. 

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Funny. I still remember our stacking pattern for the wagons.

    Me, too. And how it was important to stack the bales with all the knots facing the same direction if you didn’t want the load to come apart. 

    • #25
  26. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    I used values that gave about the average range. If the hay itself was too light, we got bales that only weighed 50 or 60 pounds and they tended to fall apart. If we set the baler to pack them too tight, we’d get bales that weighed 130 to 150 and they’d break the twine. Straw was always light, maybe 40 pounds a bale. We used one of the red-and-yellow New Holland balers that was probably vintage 1970. 

    When the farmer set the baler, I was always in favor of lighter, but of course I didn’t say anything to indicate I couldn’t handle whatever he gave me to do. I do remember some that would break the twine, and then he would reset the baler.  My baling days ended in fall 1966, when I went to college. But I can still hear (and feel) the New Holland baler at work. 

    My favorite job was stacking them on the rack behind the tractor, because then I could catch a breeze and look at the scenery if the bales weren’t coming too fast. Stacking them in the barn was dirtier work. “Leonard,” the main farmer I worked for, had a barn in which the milk stalls and calf pens were arranged around the center hay barn, which held bales from the ground floor up. It was a somewhat unusual barn for the region.  It may have been at the end of the last summer when the barn was full that he and his son asked me, “Do you realize you stacked the whole barn yourself?” And so I had, but I would rather have spent more time out on the rack. 

    Some farmers were starting to use bale throwers then, and it was nastier trying to stack those bales after they had been tossed around and bent out of shape. Fortunately, I didn’t get in on much of that.

    I didn’t realize until a couple years ago, when I was talking to my youngest brother, that he had worked for “Leonard” more than I had, and had got in on a lot more than baling hay. But that may have been when his son was in Vietnam.

    • #26
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    The alfalfa bales were around 60-70 pounds. They weren’t too bad. But the ones that were made from timothy grass were heavier–my dad called them grain-hay, like they had two things growing together…I can’t remember. They were murder to haul. I was very glad to get to the end of the season when we only had to haul straw bales! They were so light! Although, up there in our high altitude (Wyoming, about 100 miles south of Yellowstone Park) we often hauled that last batch of straw in a snowstorm in late September.

    I didn’t get in much on baling straw.  Yes, those bales were lighter–much lighter–but that was dirty work in a different way.  I think I’ve already told about the time in late September or October when my brother and I helped bale straw one Saturday.  North-central Minnesota can easily have snow by that time, but this was a sunny day. We got home after dark, and Mom met us at the door. She cleaned the house (the parsonage) on Saturdays and she wasn’t going to let us in to mess it up. She may have known we were going to come home black from straw soot. She handed us clothes and told us to go down to the lake to wash up.  This lake was a cool one even on the hottest days of summer, and swimming season had long been over by that time of year.  But we drove down and washed up by the lights of Dad’s VW Beetle. There was no lingering, but we got clean enough for Mom to let us in the house. 

    • #27
  28. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    She may have known we were going to come home black from straw soot.

    I never experienced straw soot. Why did your straw have soot? Ours was all from barley that got harvested in September, and I remember it being very, very smooth and clean. My dad borrowed/hired a combine to harvest it, and we stored the grain in our silo, or sometimes he’d take it to the feed store, where they weighed it and charted it. Then when we needed more cow grain, my dad would call in the order, and they mill it and take it off the chart. I’m pretty sure they didn’t keep everyone’s grain separated. Anyway, then he’d drop off one of us girls at the feed store from the school bus (he was the driver) (it was right on the way out of town) and we’d drive home our pickup truck loaded with the gunny sacks. The barley was freshly smashed and mixed with minerals and something like molasses/sugary stuff. It was still warm from being milled and it actually tasted quite delicious just fresh from the feed store. (We’d put a handful in our coverall pocket to snack on while we milked.) We packed the grain sacks up in the center of the barn; the milking parlor was on the east side of that. The cows could smell the warm grain on that first evening and they were very excited to get their rations when they came in to get milked.

    Wow…my brain is flooding with the memories tonight! Thanks for the trip back in time!!

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    I never experienced straw soot. Why did your straw have soot? Ours was all from barley that got harvested in September, and I remember it being very, very smooth and clean.

    I’m not sure, as I haven’t had much experience with grain harvest, but I think it was because the bales had been lying out in the field for a few weeks. Usually when we put up hay it went straight from the baler to the barn, but it didn’t happen with that straw. The straw was still good, and the bales were dry and light, but that was dirty work.  

    • #29
  30. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    I never experienced straw soot. Why did your straw have soot? Ours was all from barley that got harvested in September, and I remember it being very, very smooth and clean.

    I’m not sure, as I haven’t had much experience with grain harvest, but I think it was because the bales had been lying out in the field for a few weeks. Usually when we put up hay it went straight from the baler to the barn, but it didn’t happen with that straw. The straw was still good, and the bales were dry and light, but that was dirty work.

    Or more likely the straw had been lying in windrows for long enough to get sooty.  I don’t remember doing much work at all where we picked bales off the ground.  It was late enough in the year that wheat or oats harvest should have been long over.  (More likely oats, as wheat was hardly grown in our area. Not much oats was grown, either, as I remember farmers saying it was cheaper to buy it when it was needed in the feed. But maybe it was grown in part to get the straw for bedding.) 

    • #30