The universal scent of summer hay

Amid the fields and pastures of Switzerland, our columnist is transported back to south-central Indiana.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A cow munches hay while waiting to be milked in Randolph Center, Vermont. The herd is milked at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day.

With summer, my thoughts drift to the hayfields of south-central Indiana, where I spent untold hours as an adult stacking bales onto wagons, pulling them from the chute of the baler as Charlie drove the tractor up and down snaking windrows. He would cut the fields and I would rake them into those windrows, once the fallen grasses had cured in the sun. 

But baling took both of us, and often my son as well. Tim’s participation began as a toddler sitting on the growing stack. Eventually he became a very handy helper, indeed. By the time we retired from dairy farming, he could toss the tightly bound bales over my head and onto the top of the growing pyramid. It was hard but rewarding work. It was insurance against the winter. 

By September, the barn was full, and when the cows came in for milking, you could tell they could smell the fragrance from the loft. Never mind they still grazed by day and didn’t need it. Cows will have their grass and eat hay too. 

As the nights closed in earlier and earlier, the cows began their hay-augmented diet most appreciatively. Many an evening I’d stand in the racks, just watching their jaws move in that cyclical rhythm typical of well-satisfied ruminants.

I live now on the edge of a rural area near Basel, Switzerland, where my enjoyment of cows and the lifestyle they evoke is well satisfied too. Since my arrival here I’ve seen two seasonal cycles of cutting, raking, and baling hay for local dairy herds. I’ve paused on walks along field edges and fence lines to watch farmers at this oh-so-familiar work. I marvel that anyone would drive a tractor on some of the steeper hillsides, and indeed, some areas are scythed and raked by hand. The hay is then stacked into domed “doodles” and left in the field. The dome shape sheds the rain until the hay is forked onto small wagons for delivery to barns full of beautiful Swiss brown bovines. Where tractors can’t go, horses or oxen might do the honors.

This spring I began to muse whether I could still put up hay if I had to. A 50-pound bale is pretty intimidating now, so I’ll hay vicariously instead, watching the workers among the windrows.

It’s a bit like witnessing a deeply familiar folk dance, the twists and turns, bends and lifts of farmworkers balancing on the beds of rocking wagons as they add to the stacks rising behind them. 

In the fall and winter here, I’ve enjoyed walking by area barns at dusk as evening milking gets underway. I pause to look in if the doors to a mild night are open. The sounds drifting out – the pulse of the vacuum pump, a milker’s soft voice, the cows’ low responses, even that of a cloven hoof upsetting a bucket – evoke the way of life I embraced for so many years, back in Indiana. I remember the older couple who used to pause to watch me milk our cows, no doubt reliving dairy memories of their own.

Milking to me was more than a vocation. My cows were more than milk providers. I knew each one personally. As countries go, Switzerland is a fine one for satisfying my need to get as close as I can to cows – even if only in passing.

As for putting up hay, 25 years of that taught me a lot that still informs my being and outlook. I’ve learned that a sudden squall on a half-baled field is not the tragedy it may seem. Hay ruined for feed – rain leaches out nutrients, and hay baled damp may become moldy – can be re-spread, dried, and baled for bedding or mulch. What you’ve done is still productive work, if not what you’d hoped for. And when you think you can’t lift another bale, and they’re still coming up the chute, you can whistle for a break and slide off the wagon to seek a shade tree for rest and respite. In most circumstances, nothing has to be done beyond what you can do at the moment. 

But here’s the heart of the matter: When the barn is full and the fields lie fallow, you can rest on your laurels – or one of those bales – and get almost nostalgic about the intense summer labors behind you. 


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