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Forage 2022: A Brief History of Haying

"Making Hay – 1910," using an overshot stacker. Ed E. Manchester collection from Tripp County Historical Society, Winner, South Dakota.
13-3 ‘Making Hay’, Tripp County, SD, c 1909

Ask any farmer/rancher over the age of fifty, what they believe is the biggest change in their operation during their lifetime, and they will likely say, “The method of putting up hay.” Harvesting corn is often mentioned; however, both comments will be followed by, “It used to be a lot of work.” 

In the tri-state region, hay has been a prominent factor in most livestock operations from the time the area was homesteaded. At the end of the open range days, the region was known for not only its grazing characteristics, but the excellent grasses suitable for preservation. Because of weather conditions, it became apparent that the grasses needed to be preserved for livestock feed, especially during the winter. With the homesteader came the primitive methods of harvesting and preserving hay. The process started with cutting the hay by hand with sickles and scythes and bunching it, by hand, into small stacks. There were many attempts to improve on this method. Primitive cutting devices (mowers) were developed, as were rakes, sweeps and stackers, which all required work horses and mules to operate, and were extremely labor intensive.  

One invention was made by Lige Hollenbeck. He patented several things, such as an elevator grader, a silo lifter, and a bee tomper. While spending a summer helping his brother Earl put up hay in the Nebraska Sandhills, Earl had fixed up a makeshift hay sled by taking cottonwood logs and putting planks on them, then with the use of a stacker rope, cabled hay on it when snow was on and fed cattle that way. Earl said, “By gosh, if I could just figure out a steering apparatus on it, I’d get the old chassis of a grain separator and underslung and make me a hay wagon.” Lige said, “That wouldn’t be very hard to do,” so on a rainy day he went to the shop and with the use of tin snips, tin, wire, and some little wheels off some toys made a steering apparatus, and with that model, began making hay wagons, setting up a plant at Long Pine, Nebraska. Many ranches in the tri-state ranching area benefited from Lige’s “Hollenbeck Hay Sled.” Elijah (Lige) died in 1945 at the age of 74, and at the time of his death was still making and selling those sleds, according to his book, Memories of a Sandhills Pioneer. 



Although many early day ranchers made hay stacks by hand, they soon began using cages filled by a giant fork pulled by horses. The most popular types were the slide stacker and the overshot stacker, although these contraptions also required a number of hardy workers, especially those that “topped” the stacks by using a pitchfork to round off the tops of the giant stacks so as to better shed water. Various inventions were created in an attempt to improve on these stackers, like the “Jay Hawk,” which was invented by a Kansas Farmer. The Jay Hawk was of a simpler design, but quite awkward to operate, thus not as prevalent in our area. In the 1940s, when tractors began appearing in hay fields, the method of stacking hay remained the same, with the exception of tractors replacing horses. After World War II, military-surplus Jeeps also appeared in hay fields, pulling rakes. 

According to Todd County Rancher, Glen Huddle, horses were the primary source of power in the family ranch hay field. “When I grew up, we were still using horses. I went to the service in 1951, and when I came back, dad had got a couple tractors and farmhands, but we still used the slide stacker and round cage.” Huddle said, “Those old timers would not believe how haying has changed today.” 



Undoubtedly, the biggest change has been in the invention and use of the big round baler. In 1936, a man named Innes of Davenport, Iowa, invented an automatic square baler for hay, pointing the way to a round baler that became somewhat popular in the 1940s. Both balers did not work that well, according to “A Brief History of Twine”.  In the late 1960s a Pella, Iowa farmer told Gary Vermeer that the process of making hay had him on the verge of leaving the cattle business. That tempted Gary to begin designing a “one-person hay system,” a baler that a single person could operate and one that opened a whole new level of productivity in the field. The introduction of the Vermeer round baler in 1971 has had a major influence on how cattle producers now harvest hay. Without a doubt, the invention of the big round baler has shaped the industry that feeds and fuels the world.


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