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Hay - Day

Agriculture in Co. Mayo's old days


For some reason the farmers in some parts of Mayo left the cutting and harvesting of the hay crops until later in the year than was generally the norm in other parts of the country.
Most activity did not commence until well into July and often the last cuts were not stored or stacked until well into September. Only a few farmers tried to get started early and to have the first few acres cut before June was out and may have had no sympathy for those whose fields were still dotted with saved or partly saved "cocks" or stacks of hay as the evenings grew shorter and the summer tempratures dipped with the onset of September.
Hay, for anyone out there who may be unfamiliar with the term, is the name for dried and sun-bleached grass that has been the staple foodstuff for farm animals during the winter season since the time of the Norman invasion.

Donkey Cart

In late April or early May farmers spread 'top dressing' on the fields they were going to 'reserve'. In layman's terms that meant spreading the accumulated pile of animal dung and rotted straw that resulted from keeping livestock indoors for the winter period. Each day the stables, or barns as they were universally called, had to be cleaned out and fresh bedding, usually straw, strewn on the floor. Incidentally, only on the most inclement of days were the livestock being stabled kept in all day; usually they were let out during daylight hours thus facilitating the chore of cleaning and re-bedding the barns.
The fields to be used for hay harvesting were 'reserved' or closed off from animal grazing when the first signs of grass growth heralded the gradual warming of temperatures. The donkey and cart was pressed into action and load after back-breaking cartload of the accumulated rotting dung and straw were dumped at intervals arounds the reserved fields. It was then the task of the children, using four-pronged forks or "graeps," to spread those loads as evenly as possible and to break each forkful down to the smallest possible sized pieces.The idea was that the forces of nature would help decompose the top dressing as it was referred to and allow the nutrients into the soil to enrich the growing grass.

All through the summer the growth of the grass crop was studied and analyzed in detail and the prospects of a good yield debated ad nauseum. Along with the weather itself and the fortunes of the Mayo football team the likely quality of that season's hay crops was a staple item of small talk whenever two or more adults met up together. The kids did not give a damn as they all knew only too well that the coming toil in the hayfields would mean sore hands and aching limbs but still they all looked forward to the haymaking as it brought a bustle of activity and excitement about the place.

Finally the time came when conditions were right to begin and one of the farmers and his trusty little grey, Ferguson tractor were landmark sights as he went from farm to farm cutting sections of the meadows as directed by the owners.
The amount being cut depended on the help available to save the meadows being cut and on the likely weather conditions in the days ahead. In good conditions, plenty of sunshine and wind, a grass cut could be dried and stored inside a four or five days. As more often happened rain would disrupt the process and the same amount could take as many weeks - it was a perfect example of 'pot luck'! You just hoped for the best and made allowances for the worst...

Firstly, one was at the mercy of the elements in the growing season. If the crop of meadow to be cut had good growing conditions the yield return was possibly twice as much as in times of wet and cold weather.
Secondly, drying conditions when the grass was cut was all important also. This means not alone to drying off rainwater from the fields but actually drying out the sap and moisture in the grass itself.
Saving the hay meant getting it so dry of moisture that it could be stored in airless conditions for periods of months. If any moisture remained in the crop when it was finally stored it tended to ferment, producing heat and a steam, like haze that could be smelled from afar. It rotted the hay and left a fine covering of dust particles on that which remained. This dust was deadly to both animal and person alike if breathed in. 'Farmer's Lung' was a well-known term for a lung disease that resulted in the premature demise of many who worked with unsaved hay.

When the priest at Sunday Mass intoned a prayer for fine weather in the weeks ahead you could be certain that the responding "Amen" same from the heart and soul of everyone present! The saving of the hay crop and to a lesser extent the turf took precedence over all else.

Now, with more money in the economy, farmers have by and large discarded the old, manual methods of saving hay and use balers and silage cutters to harvest their winter fodder but even so fine hay weather is all important and the priest's prayers at Sunday Mass at this time of the year will be echoed as fervently as ever!

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