Hay is made by cutting the grass and leaving it to dry in the warm summer weather to provide winter feed for animals. Hay making is a happy memory for many a farmer’s child from the latter half of the twentieth century. Whether it was making the cocks or riding on the trailer load of bales. However hay making is a relatively recent development in our agricultural history.

Hay making is the longest established method of conserving grass for feeding cattle and sheep through the winter. Successful haymaking relies on the crop of grass being thoroughly dried before it is baled or stored.

Cutting must be done when the weather is fine and several continuous dry days are expected. Hay that has been rained on is of poorer quality and may be unpalatable.

With Ireland’s mild climate animals were kept in the field during the winter so no winter fodder was required. In the eighth century the English historian, Venerable Bede, wrote: ‘Ireland is far more favoured  than England … so that there is no need to store hay in summer for winter use, …’

Meath was one of the places that hay making was first introduced in the twelfth century. Hay making would have begun on the callows of the river banks which flooded during the winter and thus were not available for grazing. There is no mention of haymaking in any documents prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion. Instead the Irish moved their livestock into the valleys for the winter and used the higher grounds for summer grazing.  The Irish language has very few words related to haymaking while English dialects have a number of words for the tools and stages of making hay. The Irish word speal scythe is probably from the Middle English and large scale haymaking would have been introduced into Ireland after the Anglo-Norman invasion

Hay was mown between July and September, usually by scythe. Scythes had been used in Ireland as early as the Norman Conquest but references to scythes from Gaelic sources only date from the late sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, scythes were being used more widely, particularly to harvest grain.

Arthur Young in his tour of Ireland in the 1770s noted that the farmers on the Shannon closed their meadows in March or April and rarely began to mow before September. The haymaking process took two months to complete. At Gibbstown, Co. Meath Mr. Gerrard mowed 100 acres each year for his sheep and bullocks.

In 1802 Robert Thompson wrote that the Meath farmers dry their hay until the colour is bleached away arguing that this led to a loss in nutritional value but was done to  prevent heating  in the ricks. This he suggested was as a reaction to a Protestant Bishop of Meath who had followed the English method of haymaking and sixty tons of his hay had been destroyed in a fire at Ardbraccan. Thompson said that a day after cutting the hay was made into lapcocks and these were turned every second or third day. The first meadows were cut from the first of July while the later meadows were cut in late September. In broken weather the hay was spread out while onin finer weather the hay was raked into wind-rows and then small cocks. When perfectly dry it was made into tramp-cocks which remained in the field until September, October or even November when the hay was brought home and put into larger cocks or ricks. Thomas Rothwell, of Rockfield, Kells made his field tramp cocksvery small, and, when drawing home his hay to the haggard, he yoked six bullocks and drawing a very long and strong chain round the bottom of the cock, brought his hay home. At Collon an English visitor noted in 1808 that Mr. Foster who followed the English method, had his hay saved and the ricks thatched by 15th July each year but in some parts of the country the hay was not brought home until Christmas.

The swing towards livestock farming which occurred in Ireland during the second half of the 19th century led to a great expansion of the acreage set aside for hay, and by 1900 it was the largest crop produced.

During the 1860s, mowing machines became more popular, partly due to the difficulty of employing scythesmen and partly because mowing a field using a machine was perceived to be cheaper than hiring scythesmen. In the early years of the 20th century, the Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to buy mowing machines. The Department even went so far as to suggest groups of small farmers should buy a machine as part of a co-operative.

After the hay was mown, the next stage in the process involved turning and spreading it out to dry. In the early half of the nineteenth century the turning or ‘shaking-out’ of the hay was done with forks although by 1860, horse-drawn hay tedding machines were more widely used. The cutting and turning of the hay usually took place in the morning, whilst the afternoon was spent raking the hay into long “wind-rows”, either by a hand or with the help of a horse-drawn rake.

In the evening, depending on weather conditions, the hay was built into small piles or field cocks. In the northern counties of Ireland, small field cocks of around two feet in diameter, known as lap-cocks, were made. Lapping the hay involved taking a small quantity of hay and forming it into a roll. The round shape of the lap-cocks meant rain tended to drip off the hay rather than soaking in to it, whilst the hole in the middle of the lap allowed air to circulate. Lap-cocks were often taken apart and remade over the course of a few days to encourage the drying process.

After drying, the cocks were combined to make ricks or “trampcocks”. The laborious process of moving large amounts of hay was done by looping a rope round a cock and attaching the ends of the rope to a horse’s traces. Although by the latter half of the nineteenth century a hay sweep machine, commonly referred to as a ‘Tumblin’ Paddy’ gained in popularity. The “Tumblin’ Paddy” was a crude but effective piece of machinery, consisting of a row of six tines attaches to a beam. Each end of the beam was attached to a draught chain which was connected to a horse’s harness. When enough hay was collected, the Tumblin’ Paddy was tipped over to release its load and the process was started again.

Preparations for haymaking began as early as February with fields being set aside for meadow. The field might be top dressed with a load of animal manure.

The best time for cutting hay was in June when the grasses were in flower. The grass was cut by hand by the farmer using a scythe. The hay was allowed to dry  and then turned by for to ensure even drying. It was then shaken out and made into cocks or lapcocks. Once the hay was properly dry the cocks were shaken out a second time and then built into proper hay stacks. Hay ropes or súgans were thrown over the stacks and were attached to heavy stones to ensure that the stacks were not taken by a gust of high wind. The haystacks stood in the field for a month or so before they were hauled in to the haggard beside the farmer’s house. Horse drawn haycarts or boogies were used to bring the hay back from the field. The hay was then built into a large rick and this was usually a communal activity with neighbours helping neighbours to bring in the hay. Hay was either stacked on a raised stone base or on a layer of straw or sticks at ground level. When the stack reached several feet in height, the conical roof was built. The sides of the stack were then smoothed before the stack was thatched with straw and tied down with hay or straw ropes.

Stacks were often prone to fermentation and rotting but by the early twentieth century hay barns were becoming more widely used. The simple hay barn structure of a frame covered with corrugated iron can still be seen in many rural areas.

The exercise was good, the air was fresh, and it was an event that brought a farming community together. Children had the opportunity to take part in the process. Today no one would think of having a child involved in harvesting grass – it is too dangerous with the large machinery.

The twentieth century saw huge changes in agriculture and haymaking became less of a communal activity and more of mechanized process. Arguably one of the greatest changes came with the introduction of large diameter drum mowers were brought in the 1960s. The design of mowers further improved with the introduction of disc mowers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disc mowers incorporate two or three sets of knives attached to a rotor. The discs do not clog, which is ideally suited to the wet cutting conditions in Ireland. Mower-conditioners gained in popularity in the late 1970s. Grass stems dry out more slowly than the leaves but bruising the stems can speed up the drying rate. Flails were added to the disc mower design to combine cutting with grass conditioning. After the crop has been cut it is allowed to dry in the sun. To facilitate this a tractor with a “hay bob” will drive over the cut rows to rough up the drying grass. This helps remove moisture more quickly and makes the baling operation easier to complete. A rake is designed to move the mowed windrow across the soil surface creating a narrower windrow that will dry more rapidly. Raking should be completed before the crop reaches 40 percent water content.

Baling machines were also introduced around the same period to mechanise hay gathering and packing. Baling machines pick up hay and form it into either standard rectangular bales or large cylindrical “big bales”. Rectangular bales were most common in Ireland for much of the twentieth century but cylindrical bales have superseded them over the last twenty years. Cylindrical bales can be of varying sizes but are normally wrapped with twine, net and plastic.

Nevertheless, the last thirty years have seen the decline of haymaking. Silage has become the most popular form of winter fodder. Silage-making does not rely on favourable weather conditions, is less time-consuming and more cost effective.

This increase in silage has led to a reduction in the number of corncrakes. The corncrake was a shy, secretive bird of hay meadows. Its Latin name, Crex crex, may be taken from the sound of its cry. Summer migrants, the corncrakes return to Ireland from Africa to breed from mid April onwards, leaving again in September.  Because they nest on the ground in hay meadows, when harvest time comes, many young birds and nests were destroyed by the mower. Corncrakes have declined by 75%  in the second half of the twentieth century due to early mowing to make silage and mechanised hay making practices which have destroyed nests.

Haymaking may no longer be an important feature of the agricultural calendar but it is far from being a forgotten art. During the last few years, haymaking festivals have been held in Omagh and Scurlogstown, Co. Meath. Unlike many rural traditions the skills of haymaking will be retained for future generations.