Our field of (bovine) dreams

Almost all of our 80-acre farm consists of pasture for grazing and of woodland. Only a fraction of the hay we feed our dairy herd over the winter is homegrown, on a single five-acre field just west of the farmhouse, and off-limits to the cows. Because we sow and fertilize this field with special care, it always provides the cream of our hay crop.

Over the years we have planted it in clover, alfalfa, and oats, the stuff cows dream of on long winter nights. This is the hay we put into their milking-parlor stanchions each morning, and it keeps them quite blissfully occupied as they are milked.

Their main cold-weather feed is not so delectable, but it is filling and sustaining. Over the summer we put up between 3,000 and 4,000 bales of grass hay from fields up and down Bethel Lane. Most are owned by friends and neighbors who are not farmers. In a mutually happy arrangement, we mow their otherwise untended acres to fill our barn and hay shed with winter fodder for our cows. Cash is rarely exchanged either way; the most that changes hands is a glass of cold lemonade, or a note of thanks once our work is done.

I like the work of putting up hay, and I can honestly say that I've spent the best part of 10 summers at it since leaving the city to become a dairy farmer in 1990. Back then, I had a lot to learn about making a living off the land.

"Milking cows is the easiest part of this business," Charlie told me jovially as I struggled with heavy Surge buckets between two large, shifting Holsteins. The cows craned their necks to stare wide-eyed at their clumsy new attendant, making it that much harder to connect pulsators to udders.

I lost the vacuum, and my equanimity, again and again as I bungled through my first few training sessions. Fortunately, the animals were patient and forgiving, and milking gradually became more a joy than a chore.

In fact, as Charlie had intimated, the major work of dairying takes place not in the milking parlor but out in the hayfields. He does the mowing, but he soon taught me to rake, on our own five-acre hayfield. It is not only small, but close to square, perfectly level and bare of trees to maneuver around.

On such a field, raking is a piece of cake: You merely circle it counterclockwise, working gradually toward the center, then keyhole around and rake in the opposite direction back toward the outside. The linear windrows, neatly gathered up on both edges, are then ready to bale. Charlie operates the tractor and baler while I stand on the wagon stacking.

I'm an old hand at all this by now, and I relish the challenge of the more complexly configured fields we harvest. What makes raking fun, in fact, are the idiosyncratic contours, topographies, and natural obstacles - such as copses and drainage hollows - that one works around on certain fields with "personality." The windrows emerge not straight and even, but sinuous and snaking this way and that.

There is an art and a science to it: The more intricate the lay of the land, the more beautiful the patterns you can fashion. Before we begin to bale, Charlie always pauses on his tractor to gaze out over my raked creations.

Sometimes I read aesthetic appreciation in his face, sometimes a whiff of puzzlement: "Why did she rake it that way?" But in his heart he knows why. The hay rake is more than an implement to me - it is an instrument of individual expression.

By now, I could rake the simple little square field in my sleep. Charlie says he could milk the cows in the same state, and sometimes, I am convinced, he has done so. But I am not bored by this field.

We ceremoniously begin and end the hay season here. It is good to sandwich the summer's long labors between home harvests, working within sight of the porch swing and close to refrigerated water. The dogs, who spend many a boring day tied by the house when we hay farther afield, can lope across the driveway and leap aboard the wagon to keep me company as we work the home field.

When we first cut and bale these five acres, we all enjoy the lawnlike expanse on soft spring evenings. The dogs romp, or my son practices his golf swing without worrying about losing the ball - at least until we spread the next load of manure to revitalize new growth for a second cutting.

This year, rains came regularly through the normally dry month of August, and we have just cut the little field for the third and final time. The fragrance of those 100 clover-rich bales dominates the hay shed, and the cows - grazing thinning but still-green September pastures - hover around the feeding racks, wondering when some of this delicious stuff might come their way. It won't be long now.

Years ago, a next-door neighbor who has since moved away offered to buy those five acres for her horses to graze. It would have meant a small bite out of the farm, and the money was desperately needed at the time. But the offer was declined. The farm had not been broken up since its first deeding in 1832 - why start now?

A tiny corner easement was granted to the phone company for a service box in 1989. But when company officials came back a few years later, asking for a whole strip of land parallel to the road under which to bury cables, we refused them. We explained that this was our gourmet hay field, and we really could not afford to lose that linear acre from our harvest.

The fellow a bit grandly assured us that the company would pay us much more for using the land than the hay could possibly be worth.

When he left with a handshake but without a deal, he still didn't seem to grasp why we deemed the hay of greater value than the cash.

Maybe he's never owned a piece of land that speaks to him as our only hayfield does to us. Perhaps he's never stopped to think why some harvests are worth more than their weight in hay - or what cows dream about on a long winter's night.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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