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I spent most of my young life baling hay. My dairy farmer father would have a hundred acres laying on the ground on our last day of school ‒ and he thought that every day was a good day for hay. We’d still be baling hay on Labour Day Weekend, and in the unlikely event that we actually got caught up on our own farm, he’d send the three of us to help somebody else. All of it was small square bales.

When two of us left for university, suddenly there was a shiny new round baler sitting in the yard. I found out later that he would have bought the round baler years earlier, but he thought that having us in the field (and off the beach) would ‘keep us out of trouble.’

My point is: I’ve baled a lot of hay, stacked a lot of hay, mowed a lot of hay, breathed in a lot of hay dust, and the last of the scratches on my forearms finally healed up in my late forties. I still have hay in my socks from the 1980s.

In retrospect, it was a great training ground in many ways and I was certainly in the best physical condition of my life. We learned how to work hard, but we also learned how dangerous the process could be – especially to people not used to working around heavy loads and powered equipment. We had lots of experience, were used to the work, and had very good equipment.

Some of the things I’ve seen since I landed in the equine world concern me greatly. I often see this heavy, dangerous work carried out by untrained and/or inexperienced people with underpowered and/or unreliable equipment and precariously-balanced heavy loads.

When stacking, alternating bales between direction and flat vs. on-end will create stability.

Let’s start with the human beings. The idea of ‘getting everyone together’ to unload and mow hay might sound like good fun – maybe even a little romantic. It’s not. I’ve watched the uninitiated stand under elevators, oblivious to the damage that a 50-lb bale dropping from twenty feet above can do. Force = Mass X Acceleration = 50lbs X 9.80 m/s/s = 490 Metric Yikes.

Parents who wouldn’t let their kids outside without sunscreen will let them run around the base of an elevator, which is a cacophony of exposed belts, gears, chains, cogs, and questionable extension cords. Do not be one of those parents.

If bales are stacked too loosely, Burmese tiger traps are produced. People smack their heads into beams or walk off the edge of the mow. Just the simple act of picking up 50 lbs of hay all day, over and over again, without training, warm-up stretching, and with the ever-popular twisting-jerking motion that many like to use, is a recipe for disaster. It was safer for me to be lifting 1,000 bales a day when I was doing it all the time than it is for me to do five now. The cardinal rul: “Lift with your knees – not with your back.”

(For a great video explaining more than you will ever need to know about hay and how to stack it, watch ‘Hay Stackin’ 101′):

I also see a lot of underpowered tractors, dicey-looking wagons, and elevators which aren’t quite up to the job. Many underestimate the weight of those bales of hay and equipment poorly maintained or ill-suited to the task at hand is a serious hazard.

An average bale wagon can hold about 150 small square bales. That’s 7,500 pounds (almost four tons) of hay. Now consider all this sitting on four bald, underinflated tires, and hubs which haven’t seen a grease gun in a decade. A wagon of round bales will run about the same weight, but are nowhere near as stable, and the implications of dropping one are infinitely more serious. Large square bales are the heaviest (from 800-1,400 lbs) and very few horse farms have a tractor capable of safely moving one. When one considers the weight being handled, the equipment being used to handle it, and the jenga-like stacks that are built by inexperienced operators, it really is a miracle that there aren’t more injuries.

Many farms lack significant storage, so on top of everything else, hay ends up being transported and handled in the dead of winter. That means, that alongside the aforementioned concerns you need to factor in cold, wind, ice, and snow. When storage is available, it’s always the lesser of two evils to be up in the hay mow in the heat of the summer than freezing in an ice storm in January, so try to have enough hay stored to get through the winter.

Second-storey hay can provide great insulation for a barn; it really only takes a couple of layers of bales. Ideally though, old bank barns can be filled to the rafters with hay as old-school post-and-beam construction depend upon a full mow for structural integrity. Anyone who has driven down a country road can cite examples of barns which stood solid for 150 years but fell apart as soon as they spent a few winters empty.

A horse owner’s worst nightmare: When hay’s internal temperature rises above 130⁰F (55⁰C), a chemical reaction begins to produce flammable gas that can ignite if the temperature goes high enough.

The threat of spontaneous combustion is a primary concern. A barn fire is a truly terrifying thing, and one of the most common causes is wet hay. Moisture is the enemy (when hay is baled, it should not be higher than 18 to 22 percent moisture) as it causes both mould and heat, and if that heat becomes too intense… Our dairy barn burned when I was in high school (a lightning strike, not wet hay), but it was the most traumatic day in the history of a farm which had survived two world wars and the Great Depression.

I know people who swear by using salt in the mow, and others who use acid on the baling equipment (both will help to dehydrate the damp hay), but the best technique is experience. We baled when my dad said that it was safe to do so. He baled when my grandfather said it was okay, and so on through history. If you’re taking hay straight out of the field and into storage, the most important person – and the one who needs to have the most experience – is the person deciding if the hay is dry enough to bale in the first place.

Haying is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard work and the level of experience of the labour, along with having the right equipment in proper working order, is absolutely critical to success ‒ and safety.