Devon is ahum with the sound of harvesters, as farmers race to catch up with silage-making after a wet May.
For traditional hay-making, grass was cut, and turned every day for four to seven days until dry enough to store as hay. It’s highly weather dependent – and since the 1960s, hay-making has been progressively replaced by silage, where the grass is cut much earlier (while more digestible) and wilted for a day, before being raked into rows, chopped into short lengths, blown into a trailer and transported to the farm, where it is rolled and wrapped in plastic to remove and exclude air.
Under anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring lactic bacteria ferment the sugars in the grass, converting them to lactic acid, which pickles and preserves the grass. If made well, with grass high in sugar, silage smells sweet – but after five months eating this bovine sauerkraut over winter, for most cows getting out onto the spring grass can’t come soon enough.
The sweet smell of well-made hay evokes memories of working hard during good summers, with a cider barrel stashed in the hedge (consumed while loading the trailers), and more in the yard to clear the throat after unloading the bales into the barn.
It was hot, hard, dusty work, but by necessity a sociable job; no farmer could lift all those bales on their own. In a wet, unsettled summer, crops were lost, the smell was far from sweet, and the bales were heavy. But I can’t help lamenting the task’s passing. By comparison, modern silage-making is more reliable, highly mechanised, and the product more digestible, allowing cows to produce more milk – but the move to silage has been a disaster for traditional, late-cut hay meadows, along with all their richness of flowers, insects, and ground-nesting birds.
Each year, the forage harvester, trailers, and rowing-up rake get larger, harvesting 100 acres of grass a day compared to the five acres of my youth. I snatched a minute during refuelling to ask John, our local contractor, how many horsepower his monster harvester packed.
His wry, tired, half-smiling answer, as he climbed back into his cab to rev up for another 16-hour day with his phone as his only communication, was: “Not enough.” These days, no amount of cider would induce many people to pitch hay bales all summer. But hearing John’s harvester groan up the hill filling yet another trailer made me wonder: as the machines get bigger, when will we decide that progress has taken us far enough?