Making hay, then and now

John Oncken
Four tractors packing hay in a bunker.

I took a couple field and farm look-see rides a couple days ago just to see what farming looked like this early June. Crops do look great with much of the corn up and growing by the day and surprising to me, I didn’t see an uncut field of alfalfa in the DeForest, Waunakee area. 

The weekly NASS crop report bears me out that crops are ahead of normal. The report says: Corn planting was 96% complete, 22 days ahead of last year and 8 days ahead of the 5-year average. Corn emerged was 86%, 20 days ahead of last year and 6 days ahead of the average. Corn was rated 84% good to excellent statewide, up 1 percentage point from last week. 

Most of the state’s corn is above ground.

Soybean planting was 94% complete, 25 days ahead of last year and 10 days ahead of the average. Soybeans emerged was 75%, 20 days ahead of last year and a week ahead of the average. Soybean condition was rated 86% good to excellent statewide, up 4 percentage points from a week ago.

First cutting of alfalfa was reported as 50% complete, 6 days ahead of last year but 2 days behind the average. All hay condition was reported 65% in good to excellent condition statewide, up 9 percentage points from last week.

Topsoil moisture condition was rated 0% very short, 4% short, 81% adequate and 15% surplus.  Subsoil moisture condition was rated 0% very short, 3% short, 80% adequate and 17% surplus. 

All in all a fast start to the growing season with any concerns centering on weather conditions here on out. (Farmer’s crop success most often centers on weather, something they have zero control of).

You can make lots of hay in a short time with today’s equipment.

So different

Several days ago I briefly watched Statz Bros. dairy (just east of Sun Prairie) chopping alfalfa and storing it in a big bunker and got to thinking how different making hay is today from when I was growing up on the farm.

Chances are few readers today even remember a hay loader and how it worked. I surely do! The piece of equipment was hooked to the rear of the flat-bottomed hay wagon and shuffled the hay from the windrow up to the top of the loader where my dad or I used a three tine fork to build a nice square firm load on the wagon. One made sure the hay was packed fairly tight (by walking on it) in order to make a stable load and one that could be taken off the wagon easily.  

When we built a load (probably eight feet high) the full wagon went to the end of the barn where the hay fork dropped from the steel track running the length of the barn. The fork, maybe three feet in length was stuck into the hay load and locked. I’d yell “go ahead!” and a horse led by my brother, sister or mother (whoever was available) would pull the long hay rope and the fork full of hay would rise to the track high above and make its way the length of the barn until my dad would yell “Stop!” and I’d pull the trip rope thus releasing the hay from the fork dropping it where dad would mow it with his fork across the barn width.

Nothing like the smell of newly cut hay in the spring.

The horse would turn around, I’d pull the fork back out to the wagon and the process would continue until the wagon was empty. As I remember it would take four to six fork loads to empty the wagon and head off to the field for another load.

Just hard work

Sounds complicated? Not really. It was a step above loading hay from the ground and a stem behind the advent of the hay baler. But, it was hard dirty work with all the muscle power needed and the chaff and dust one breathed in and got down the back of your shirt.

Alfala waiting to be cut.

It’s hard to believe I actually made hay that way where nowadays such hard work is long gone from hay making as big choppers with wagons or trucks hauling the cut hay can do more in five minutes than we did in a days time. It’s a long gone era, fortunately.

Two to remember

The dairy industry recently lost two individuals who between them did so much to further the industry over their lifetimes. They were both teachers and researchers and were well known to so many UW-Madison students, farmers and dairy processors. They deserve to be remembered. 

David Wiekert

David A. Wieckert, age 88, passed away on Sunday, May 17, 2020. He was born on Aug. 7, 1931, on a farm at Appleton. David obtained a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1963. (His thesis centered on the Pabst Farm Dairy herd). The next 33 years were spent as a professor in the Dairy Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught over 10,000 students.

Dave was an inspirational educator with a passion for dairy cows; an unselfish and frequent host to visitors from around the world 

Even while teaching, Dave was looking for a way to get back into dairy farming, probably a farming partner. He eventually found two brothers who were students in the Farm and Industry Short Course and also dreamed of farming. In 1978. Dave and the brothers, Charles and Tom Crave formed a partnership, and after initially renting, purchased a farm near Waterloo.

The operation expanded and brothers George and Mark Crave joined the partnership with Wieckert eventually leaving the organization.  Of course, today Crave Brothers Dairy is internationally known as is their Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese. Without Dave Wieckert what would have been?

Norman Olson

Norman F. Olson died on May 10, 2020. He was born in Edmund, Wisconsin on February 8, 1931. Following his military service, he obtained a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Norm served the next 40 years as a professor in the Food Science Department at the University of Wisconsin. His research focused on the chemistry, microbiology, and technology of cheese products, food fermentation and microbial metabolism in foods.  

Norman was instrumental in organizing the Center for Dairy Research at the UW Madison and served as its first Director from 1985-1993. His efforts in assisting the cheese industry in developing new cheeses, and the technology needed in the dairy processing industry has kept Wisconsin as the number one cheese state.

Both Dave and Norm were close friends of mine. I and the dairy world will miss them. 

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-572-0747 or e-mail him at