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The art of the rake

Brad Nelson Published on 14 May 2012

I remember a conversation from about 30 years ago concerning Fairfield, Idaho, hay.

The topic was which hay growers had and used hay rakes and which did not.

The discussion was that the growers without rakes always ended up with hay that was cleaner than the hay that had been turned or doubled with hay rakes.

Fairfield was totally dry-land back then and the second cutting was often sparse. It made sense to roll the skinny windrows together to save travel time for the balers.

Even the heavy first cutting was raked together and often to just turn it over to hasten drying before it could be baled.

The problem with the rakes was that most of the time the rakes picked up everything that was loose in the field in addition to the current cutting of alfalfa.

As of 2011, many hay growers are still having the same problem. Export hay should be clean of rocks and dirt and leftover stems from the previous cutting and cow pies from winter grazing, etc.

In a short hay year, dairymen will accept the hay not suitable for export, but they don’t like it. When the hay supply situation is more normal, they will remember where they got the hay from that included “stuff.” Feed store hay becomes hard to sell when it is infested with the above “stuff” also.

The type of rake used can be the cause of the problem or the solution. The first rake I remember was a dump rake pulled by Kate and Brownie, Dad’s work horses.

The rake was pulled across the field in a manner to bring the hay into rows, and then again at a 90º angle to pull the rows into shocks of hay that was loaded on the hay wagon via a good pitchfork. The teeth of the dump rake dragged on the ground and picked up anything loose in the field.

The wheel rake – which gets its movement from contact with the ground – also brings rocks, sticks, alfalfa roots and stems of last season’s hay into the windrow with the new hay.

It may be possible to set the wheel rake to only move a heavy windrow of the current cutting without touching the ground, but this type of rake can be seen as the cause of foreign matter ending up in the bale.

The setting of the rake can be the cause or the cure for the problem. The plan is to leave in the field anything that is not the current cutting of alfalfa or grass or timothy.

This means setting the rake so the teeth do not touch the ground. This is a balancing act. You want to get all the current crop of hay moved without picking up sticks, rocks, hay roots, cow pies, etc. Unless you have perfectly flat fields, this is going to be a compromise.

The rake is going to occasionally hit dirt and it is occasionally going to leave some hay in the field. Remember that you want hay in the hay bales. That is all you want in the hay bales.

The ground speed of the rake is critical to doing a good job of raking. The windrow needs to roll over without being dragged.

The state-of-the-art box rakes are adjustable for speed of rotation of the teeth that move the hay. They can combine windrows or just turn the hay over without combining the windrow.

They can roll the windrow over onto dry ground with what was the top of the windrow returned to the top. This puts the bottom of the windrow on a dry place to speed drying and does not add to sun bleaching while the hay finishes drying.

When it is ready to bale, the box rakes can combine two windrows so that the bleached top of the windrows end up in the center of the bale and the bale appears nice and green on the outside.

Hay should be raked when the moisture in the alfalfa is adequate to hold the leaf in place on the stem. Turned over with too much dew moisture on the top of the windrow and you put wet hay on wet ground. This complicates rather than helps getting the whole windrow cured down to the correct baling moisture.

Power for the rake – rakes that operate from the tractor’s hydraulic system – may easily be starved for volume and pressure to operate properly.

One Columbia Basin, Washington State hay grower (and probably many more) has adapted the PTO-powered hydraulic pump usually found powering balers to the power source for the big hay rakes that are used. This “just makes the rakes work better at what you want them to do,” was the comment.

Operator skill may trump everything else. Once an operator realizes what he is doing, and takes pride in his job, he becomes a priceless asset to a haying operation.

This is not a race to get done. This is setting the speed so the hay is moved without beating it to death and leaving the leaves on the ground in the field.

Smooth is the word that best describes the scene as a good operator with appropriate equipment moves through the field, watching the windrows appear to move by themselves in fluid motion with the rakes.

Field conditions can make it impossible for the best equipment and the best operator to properly move the hay with the rakes.

Irrigation circle tracks can raise dirt ridges that get into the hay via swathers and rakes and balers. Years back one hay grower would cut the first cutting so the windrow fell into the wheel tracks to keep the wheels from sinking into the soil. I told him I thought it was an exorbitant waste of the best hay he would have all year.

Growers have made a variety of tools to fill problem wheel tracks. One thing that works is to fill the wheel tracks in problem areas with pea gravel (screenings).

This works into a firm solid area for the wheels of the irrigation circles to move on without adding rocks to the soil. (Pea gravel is usually less than 3/8-inch maximum size.) Some growers just cut between the wheel tracks to avoid any issues.

After the problem that caused the soil to gush upward is corrected, drag the area to knock it down to the level of the rest of the field.

Gophers and other burrowing rodents cause damage to the forage crop by eating the tender shoots of the roots and by fouling the fields with the mounds of dirt they create.

Word from the field is that the gopher bait machines that make an artificial burrow and leave the bait inside are the most effective weapon against gophers.

The plan that works is to make a cross-hatch pattern through an infested area, about 20 feet apart. A perimeter pass is also a good idea.

Then watch the area for 10 days. If there is any fresh activity, the area needs more attention. When you are satisfied you have eliminated the gophers, drag the area to knock down the gopher mounds. This will make it easy to see any remaining gopher activity and also keep the dirt out of the hay.

Gophers and other burrowing rodents need to be aggressively eradicated. They lower the tonnage dramatically and foul the hay with dirt. No rake in the world can do its job of getting clean hay moved in windrows if the field is gopher-infested.

Harvesting hay remains more of an art than a science. We can identify the conditions needed to get the hay cut, cured and baled properly.

We can identify the moisture range required to maintain the leaf attachment to the stem at baling without getting spoilage inside the bale from too much moisture. Now to get the wind, rain and dew to cooperate.  FG

“The first rake I remember was a dump rake pulled by Kate and Brownie, Dad’s work horses.” Picture courtesy of the Dave Miller collection.