How to Cut Hay from a Little Meadow?

If you wanted to mow a couple of acres for hay, either for a wildflower meadow, or to feed a few farm animals on a smallholding, what do you cut it with? For simple practicality I would probably use an old drum mower on a tractor, but it might be the least charming option. In a break from painting an old horse drawn mower I take a quick tour through most of the other possibilities, and the trials and tribulations I have experienced when trying them out over the years.
'Unhitching at Sunset' -a recent painting. A horsedrawn mower is parked up for the day.
'Unhitching at Sunset' -a recent painting. A horsedrawn mower is parked up for the day.

There comes a point towards the end of many an afternoon when I reach a saturation point with working in earnest concentration on painting. My current antidote to this is to head outside for an hour or so and do something useful outside, which in the spring and summer months is often mowing grass.

We have a couple of acres that belong to our old farmhouse that we are currently trying to prevent from falling back to brambles. In the end, I’d love to run some of it as traditional hay meadow. So, in my painting break, I relentlessly plod on with our little electric rotary mower, cutting grass that is really way to long for it to cope with, mixed with the nascent regrowth of bramble stems and look forward to the day when I can sort out some more appropriate kit to do this with.

Given these thoughts and the fact that my most recent painting features a horsedrawn hay mower, I started thinking through all the different hay cutting equipment that I have used. I realised that I have probably tried out nearly every form of hay mowing kit that has been employed over the last couple of hundred years. Even so, I don’t think there is one ‘best’ way of doing things.

So I thought it best just to give an account of each machine as I encountered it, with the story that came with it and let each draw his or her own conclusions as to what they might choose in similar circumstances.

The first agricultural mower I got my hands on was on the dairy farm I first worked at. Before that, my mowing had been confined to cutting my parents’ lawns with a beautiful little one foot cut, stripe creating, human powered cylinder mower. So it was a strange leap to find myself working with just about the crudest form of mowing machines around: the pasture topper. This one was a six foot wide job, mounted and powered by a Ford tractor.

It had two solid blades that would occasionally have an angle grinder run across them to keep them vaguely sharp, and relied on the sheer brute horse power of the tractor to turn the blades fast enough to cut the grass. Really, such machines are intended to take the ‘top’ off a slightly overgrown pasture, to discourage seeding and hence encourage younger leaf growth, more palatable to stock in the base, or to whip around bits of a field to take the thistles down.

I was posted onto this latter job, dashing hither and thither in chaotic patterns to demolish thistle patches all over the farm. To a witness, the random patterns I swung around the field would have looked like demonically possessed joy riding. The whole task was a far cry from the methodical perfection of that little cylinder mower.

It is however one of the easiest pieces of ‘mowing’ kit to use, and will take the bulk of hay length grass down to a manageable height if you push it to. It is no artisan’s machine though: the tangled mess of broken chopped up grass behind it is really not much good for making into hay, but if one just wanted to rake it up and compost it, as a way of making a ‘conservation’ type meadow, then this might be a fix.

This topper was not, of course, the real ‘mower’ of the farm. Cutting a couple of hundred acres of silage meant a much more serious piece of kit. This came in the form of the farm’s nearly new disc mower with about a six or seven foot cut width. This had a row of about 6 or 7 discs with swivelling blades, mounted on a hydraulically raised and lowered ‘bar’, the whole machine trailed on its own wheels, behind and offset to a tractor.

Sketch of a disc mower, the row of discs which carry the blades can be clearly seen.
Sketch of a disc mower, the row of discs which carry the blades can be clearly seen.

It was quite state of the art equipment for the time. I think, indeed, that the major change in top of the range mowing tech now, 25 years on, is that the tractors have one of these mounted in front as well, more or less doubling the cutting width, but the basic idea, of a line of spinning discs with swivelling blades on, remains unchanged.

I only got to drive this once, it was normally the job of the boss’s son (I’ll call him Tom), whilst I trailered the grass back to the farm or built it into the silage clamp. On one occasion though, Tom was required to continue urgent repairs to the forage harvester, so he took me up to the field and set me off to complete the day’s mowing so that he could return to the workshop.

My heart was a little in my mouth, knowing that were I to damage the machine I would bring the whole silaging operation to a standstill and that this was a pretty expensive piece of kit. Fortunately, I was much more adept at tractor operation than I had been on my first day on the farm and I avoided any such destruction.

It was a thrilling machine to use. It worked with elegant ease and smoothness, the only real challenge being that it was my first encounter of working the field in ‘lands’. This is where, because the machine is offset to one side of the tractor, one has to use a particular system of cutting the field, rather than just go up and down it, working from one side to the other. All of this takes a bit of a mental leap, but is not insuperable!

The apparent ease of use of this machine, though, really comes from a lot of unseen preparation. This mower is perhaps best thought of as a highly strung thoroughbred, requiring loads of attention before and after its work to keep it all running well, and requiring nothing less than almost perfectly smooth ground and a fairly even crop to run in. Take one of these machines to work across an unrolled field at your own peril (and with your own cheque book in hand!). To my mind, the only way this is likely to work for a smallholder is by working with a friendly neighbouring farmer in some way, making sure you have prepped the field to their satisfaction and then letting them do the cutting!

At the next farm I worked, on over the hill, I met the previous generation of field mower: the drum mower. If the disc mower is the thoroughbred of the mower world then this must be one of the heavy horse breeds: steady, low maintenance, robust and determined. It too has little blades mounted swivelling on a rotating plate, but there the similarity with the disc mower ends. The mountings for these blades are two heavy sturdy rotating drums, each the size of half an oil drum.

The simplicity of the machine makes it relatively easy to maintain, and the sheer solidness of the two drums makes them fairly indestructible, which, coupled with the sheer momentum they gain once run up to speed, allows them to cope with substantially less than perfect running conditions. The other significant difference is that the drums actually sit on the ground themselves, with the whole machine also being mounted directly onto the tractor in a manner which allows the drums to follow all but the most radical changes in ground surface.

Sketch of a drum mower, the two rotating drums carrying the blades are clearly visible.
Sketch of a drum mower, the two rotating drums carrying the blades are clearly visible.

Being offset behind the tractor, the field does again need to be worked in lands, and truthfully I think just about any hayfield should probably be rolled in spring if you want to do a half decent job of the cutting and spare the mower. That said, this is the one mower that might just occasionally get away with not doing so, so robustly are they built.

This one was mounted on a rather underpowered and fairly light tractor (a Massey 35- nominally 45hp) which made it a bit of a pig to use, but it did cope. Later on I used these for many years on a bigger and more powerful tractor (Ford 4600- nominally 60 hp) and found it a much steadier and easier combination.

I can’t say I ever felt any great ‘love’ for these mowers. They are not in any way poetic. They seemed to be designed along the principle of throwing loads of power at the grass, using the simplest means possible and, as such, had little grace about them. To their credit though, if I wanted to mow an average smallholders field tomorrow, (or mine in a few years time!) this is what I would choose for the job.

Where most farmer’s experience is to lay aside the old piece of kit and upgrade to a newer one, it seems like my exploration of mowing machinery through the years was destined to take me back progressively through time. Perhaps I should have anticipated this, as my next job was at an open air museum. I wasn’t launched, however, into a retinue of ancient farming ways, but found myself trying to work out how to muddle through providing winter’s forage for a small sheep flock from our few small fields, with virtually no available kit to do it.

One of my colleagues suggested using an old Allan scythe which the museum had, which I’m guessing was of about mid twentieth century vintage. This is a pedestrian operated machine with its own little engine and a 2 foot ‘scissor bar’ cutter on the front. I optimistically wheeled it out to tackle a quarter acre field.

Sketch of the Allen Scythe
Sketch of the Allen Scythe

Short of cutting grass with an actual scythe (more on this later), I think this must have been one of the hardest ways of cutting a hayfield there was. It works on a yet another mowing principle, that of the ‘scissor bar’. This most simple concept is to have a double row of triangular blades, one of which moves back and forth over the other, creating an action not unlike that of a whole row of scissors laid out in a row.

The idea is simple, but in practice there is great skill in setting the blades absolutely correctly, so they shear across each other perfectly, otherwise they cut nothing, as many will have experienced with a pair of scissors which have lost their ‘set’. On this and all other cutter bar mowers I have used, this seemed to require careful ‘shimming’ (packing with thin metal strips) of the blade mountings to get this just right. Additionally, the blades have to be dead sharp, requiring regular sharpening, thus also strikes with mole hills or stones usually require one to stop, demount the blade and resharpen.

Anyone using one of these thinking it won’t be hot work as there is an engine to drive the wheels and cutter will be severely disillusioned. The machine takes substantial manhandling to keep on course and turn, and the effect of walking along bent over behind and almost above the hot engine pretty well eliminates any chance of not cooking thoroughly whilst at it.

I notice that modern versions of this machine are available and may have been vastly improved in the 70+ years since the one I tried out was made! I daresay with more experience and in the right circumstances ( i.e. nicely rolled field and an even crop), one of these machines might be a fairly good way of tackling an acre or two of hay each year.

I think some would disagree. On my first day trying out this machine, a dignitary from an open air museum in Yakutsk was being shown around our Museum. He watched my proceedings with interest and when I stopped, he came over to examine the mower; I don’t think he had ever seen such a machine at work. In the ensuing conversation (through a translator), he told me that many still used scythes for hay cutting in his local area. He suggested that one day we should have a race between this machine and one of the expert scythe-men from his locality. His bet would be on his locals.

I too felt that depending on this machine to cut several acres of grass each year was more than I wanted to take on. The only other option that looked plausible at the time, with no money to buy anything, was another scissor bar mower which languished in the Museum’s store. This one was a 4 foot cut machine from the 1950s, designed to be mounted and driven directly off a tractor. We had the use of a little TE20 on loan to the Museum, so after finding an adaptor for the shaft, making up a couple of missing pieces and sharpening the blades, we swung this machine into use.

When running smoothly on even ground, through an even crop, with sharp blades and all set up correctly, there is a joy to operating these mowers that is hard to beat. The gentle, fast, rhythmic clacking of the cutter bar slides through the sward, dropping it gently and neatly behind, almost without disturbing it. There is none of the micro-tornado like squall of a topper, disc or drum mower whirling the grass out behind it here.

The concept of the machine is strikingly simple and brilliant, for requiring such a low power input for what it achieves. It has, however, beautiful sophistication in the embodiment of its design, so many different bits have to work in perfectly set up harmony for this simple idea to work. And there’s the rub.

If any one thing ceases to be running perfectly, the job becomes a constant challenge. Lose the edge on the blades a bit through some dirty grass or hit too much goose grass or cocksfoot and the whole blade jams and swings back behind the tractor, as the (cleverly designed) anti overload device activates. So you back up, sort it all out, go in for another go and two rows later the same happens, and on and on like that. Compounding these problems in the set up that I had was that the tractor had no ‘live’ hydraulics or PTO (power take off- the drive shaft that powered the machine). This meant that every time the tractor clutch was operated the cutter stopped and the machine would start sinking down into the wrong position; both actions making it even more likely that the cutter might jam.

For all this did I love this little machine and used it for a couple of years, quite successfully, to cut our hay crop, until a kindly volunteer managed to source us a drum mower, that had long retired, quite cheaply from a local farmer.

Perhaps the charm of the scissor bar mower is at its peak in its original horse drawn and horse powered form, which came into widespread use in the late 1800’s. It used the same type of cutter, but as the horses obviously had no drive shaft on them to power the cutter, the drive is taken from the wheels of the machine as it moves along. I have never personally operated one of these, but have assisted with their demonstration on quite a number of occasions.

The 'scissor bar'  mower. In use the clearly visible raised cutting bar is lowered to the horizontal position.
The 'scissor bar' mower. In use the clearly visible raised cutting bar is lowered to the horizontal position.

Just like the tractor mounted version, they are mesmerizingly beautiful in action, when running well. The presence of the horses indeed, takes the whole operation to a height akin to a symphonic harmony on a good day. In difficult conditions, however, the challenge of all the power having to come from the moving wheel is a serious drawback. Any wheel slippage jams the cutter. A tough crop, or anything less than perfectly sharp blades, and there is no way of slowing the forward speed of the machine to compensate, without slowing the speed the cutter bar operates, thus once again jamming the whole thing up. Indeed, on one such occasion, I witnessed the blade carrier crack in two from the jolt as the cutter was brought to a standstill and I spent the next half hour in the workshop welding it up before operation could recommence. These machines are a serious option for serious working horse operators only!

It seems like the voyage back through the history of hay mowing has continued relentlessly backwards, so I guess it would be incomplete without mentioning the tool that served for the task for hundreds of years: the scythe.

It probably deserves a whole article unto itself really and I’m not sure if I’m the best qualified to write that. I have tried using these in earnest only twice. In hindsight, the first time I didn’t stand a chance. It was around the time I was experimenting with the Allen scythe and I got to such a point of desperation with that, that I began to wonder about trying an actual scythe, especially given the comments of our visitor from Yakutsk. How hard could it be?

It turns out the answer is quite hard indeed. At home that night, I garnered every piece of useful advice I could from my substantial collection of old farming books and after the site had emptied of visitors (the thought of an audience was too much for me), I quietly went out to the field with one of the many scythes the Museum had. Most of these had been collected with an intention to use them for demonstrations, which it appeared had never come to anything; I found out quite quickly why!

I had done my best to sharpen and set the thing up as per the books’ instructions, and trying it out on some thin grass, found that I could actually cut grass with it. Celebration was, however, shortlived. The trouble came when I took this long bladed ‘English’ scythe (one of those most beautiful, steam curved handled objects) into some proper hay thickness stuff. Within a minute, I had put the tip of the blade into the ground and all the benefit of my (already barely sufficient) sharpening was lost. The next swing of the blade proved this, as I might as well have been hitting the grass with a stick for all the cutting that happened. It had taken me nearly an hour to get what I thought was a decent edge on that blade beforehand, and the thought of repeating this to cut another 3 square yards was more than I could hack. I quietly returned the scythe to its hook and decided to save that project for another day.

That day did eventually come, some ten or so years later. It took the initiative of a much more thorough individual than me, one of the farm volunteers, who had gathered that quite a few amongst the team would be interested in trying to learn to use a scythe. After thorough research and attending a day’s proper training on it at another open air museum, he suggested we acquired a couple of Austrian scythes. These, it turns out are easier to use, and critically, easier to sharpen than the English scythe. He suggested that if we did this, he could try and pass on what he had learnt to as many of the team as were interested.

We had a fabulous day. It was certainly a much more successful experiment than mine of a decade before. Cutting a corn crop with it certainly felt like it could be a viable proposition, but hay still seemed incredibly difficult. We did manage to cut an actually noticeable area of a small hay field, and I daresay with more practice it might be a workable solution for a small area.

There was an incredible satisfaction to it though. The pure simplicity of returning the cutting to its simplest and probably most efficient (if exhausting) form has a tremendous appeal. I suspect as with most old farming techniques, the key is skill, perseverance and practice, and that the old farmer’s words that “if you don’t sweat the sharpening, you’ll sweat the cutting” are probably at their most relevant here.

Mowing the old way, a scythe man, ready to cut at first light.
Mowing the old way, a scythe man, ready to cut at first light.

Scythes, discmowers, toppers, drum mowers, scissor bars... that seems to just about cover it. Of course there is one last option, but I wouldn’t recommend it:

One could just slog on with the rather tired old rotary mower, quite insufficient for the job, that one already happened to have; accepting that, for all the imperfections of the method, one is grateful for the excuse to get outside for an hour or so and dream of how, one day, one might just do this better...