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Haying in winter can be tough

Silver State Post of Deer Lodge, Montana

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Back country

Everyone's hay is in a bale, now, and the cows will be drifting home over the next few weeks. In a month or two, the calves will be shipped, and then, if we were back in the days before tractor-mounted hay loaders, the dread would set in.

I experienced the last few years of feeding with a pitchfork, before loaders became common. The ordeal was always in the back of everyone's mind during the summer and fall. The anticipation of pitching tons of hay onto and off of a hay rack, seven days a week for six months would bother anyone.

It was more difficult than haying itself. The tiny tractors that came after the horses disappeared were inadequate, but still better than horses, if only because they didn't have to be fed.

Every pound of hay was handled twice, either by pitchfork or bale hook. Four or five hundred head of livestock eat 30 pounds of hay a day, each, so the chore was immense and seemed eternal.

Unlike haying, when bad weather meant a day off, -40 degrees with a wind meant only a longer, harder day's work. It wasn't an attractive prospect to think about, or even to remember.

Contrary to the breakfasts during haying, with the large and talkative crews, the winter breakfasts were quiet, and composed of a few tired men, sipping their coffee and wondering what trials the day was going to offer. They'd eat in silence, sometimes reading or just staring. Then someone would give a resigned sigh, and the getting dressed began.

They wore wool clothing: wool pants, wool shirts, and the red plaid sheepherder's coats, as they were called. Leather mittens with wool liners were the only things that offered any protection from a cold pitchfork handle when the weather was below zero.

The standard footwear was "felts and overshoes." The felts were lace-up felt boots with a slick leather sole, and the overshoes were the buckle type. They were warm and waterproof, but heavy and clumsy. The men didn't walk, they trudged.

When they went into the house at noon, they removed the overshoes, but left the felts on. The perspiration dried while the men ate.

On most ranches, if the tractor started, and they didn't get stuck, and if the water holes weren't too badly frozen, the cattle were usually fed by noon. After dinner ("dinner" is the noon meal on ranches), the men went back out and loaded the rack for the next day. By early afternoon they were done feeding, and did other heavy work until almost dark, when they did chores.

The racks themselves were difficult to use. They were commonly two - wheeled, dead axle contraptions, with a pole framework and a board bed.

Good balance was a prerequisite for pitching off of those racks. The frozen manure on the feed ground, coupled with the lack of springs on the trailer, made even standing a difficult task until a person got the hang of it.

Usually, the driver headed the tractor in the right direction, and fastened the steering wheel in place with a home-made contrivance. Then, in awkward overshoes and bulky clothes, climbed off of the tractor, across the hitch, and up the rickety ladder to the top of the load to help pitch.

It wasn't rare for a rancher to suffer broken ribs or a sprained back when he fell while climbing onto the load or back to the tractor. A chiropractor told me, once, that if it weren't for ranchers and feeding, his business would have been cut in half during those winters. My great uncle and two others I remember died of heart attacks with pitchforks in their hands.

Then, it was back for another load, and then it was back again, for another load. If the stack was easy pitching, and there was no wind coming from the wrong direction, it was a good day. It was never an easy day.

During a blizzard with drifting snow, it could take an hour or more to even shovel into the haystack, and in a bad storm, shoveling was necessary for every load. It was brutal work, but it had to be done every day for six months or more.

Round and big square bales, with four wheel drive, cabbed tractors have eliminated the misery associated with feeding by hand. One person can take care of the same number of cattle in a couple hours that used to take four men almost a full day.

There might have been some "good old days," but those didn't exist in the winter for people who had to feed their livestock by hand.

Copyright 2014 Silver State Post, Deer Lodge, Montana. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: September 24, 2014

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