What's the deal with haystacks?
April 4, 2012 12:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm not sure I understand how haystacks work. Help please?

So I'm working on a novel set in the 1930s in the UK. I wanted to include a bit with a haystack, and I realised I don't really understand when they're built, or where they're stored. From scouring the internet, my understanding is that hay is harvested in June-July, but my question is: where is it kept after that? I always assumed that haystacks were built outdoors, in fields, but then I know hay is made into bales and kept dry in barns. Are/were haystacks temporary constructions before hay was taken to the barn? If so, how long do they stay outdoors? Would they have had tarps over the top? Is the period I'm writing about conceivably the point where mechanisation might have meant that hay was being compressed into bales?

I'm sorry, I know this is a ridiculous question, but everywhere I've tried to research assumes a knowledge of the basics, or is talking about contemporary practices. Any advice would be gratefully received.
posted by RokkitNite to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This wikipedia article has some information - I assume you may be looking for more detail than that though, I will hunt around.
posted by BigCalm at 1:00 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should absolutely watch the BBC series Edwardian Farm (and Victorian Farm -- both are available in their entirety on YouTube). In particular, episode 1 has them building a hayrick. (I think it's a later episode, late winter or early spring, when they cut into the rick to feed the cattle).
posted by katemonster at 1:01 AM on April 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Not sure about the UK, but in Austria and Germany, they used (and still do, to some extent) something called a Heustall (hay stall).

Some images: Interior of a Heustall, exterior of a Heustall. Unfortunately, I can't find a really good image of the exterior of some of the Heustalle that I've seen in southern Austria. They're pretty cool looking. I'll have to take some pictures the next time I'm in the area.

In short, these are semi-closed, covered buildings. They are walled in such a way as to allow air to flow through them freely without allowing rain to get inside the building. My girlfriend's mom threatens to send me up to her sister's mountain farm to help with the annual hay-collecting when I'm naughty :-)
posted by syzygy at 1:05 AM on April 4, 2012

Here's an excellent picture of a hayrick in use in Slovenia. Slovenia's right across the border from Southern Austria, and this is the style of hayrick / Heustall I've seen across southern Austria.
posted by syzygy at 1:10 AM on April 4, 2012

In Ireland (and probably elsewhere in the UK too) they have "hay sheds" that are used to store hay. You can do a google image search to see what some of these look like.
posted by MattMangels at 1:12 AM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: Traditionally they would have been built to stay outside and thatched to keep off the rain. There's a photo of a thatched haystack from 1937 here, so it looks like that was continuing well into your time period in at least some parts of the country.
posted by Catseye at 1:13 AM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: Here's a picture of people building haystacks apparently in the 1930s... and the crucial bit of info you are missing is that haystacks were thatched to keep the rain off, which is very labour intensive, hence the preference for baling once the machinery became affordable.
posted by emilyw at 1:15 AM on April 4, 2012

Response by poster: This is awesome, thanks so much folks. That photo from 1937 is labelled 'September' - so I'm assuming that, once built in June-July, they would stay up (shrinking, obvs) for most of the year.

I really struggled to find pertinent info, even at the library, so this is fantastically helpful. Thanks.
posted by RokkitNite at 1:26 AM on April 4, 2012

There's a short bit in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' describing a 19th century hay rick fire; in this case, the ricks are being stored in a large barn, in close proximity to each other so aren't thatched. There is a point in there that having this number of ricks close to each other is relatively unusual - first on scene at the fire thinks that it's just going to be one rick going up in flames, then sees the others and sees that the fire can easily spread. So ricks may have been stored in barns rather than outside in some cases.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:31 AM on April 4, 2012

The following link contains information about and a video with commentary of a demonstration of traditional UK hayrick-building. If you'd really like to learn more, you can even travel to the UK to watch the demonstration live.

Video of traditional UK hayrick building
posted by syzygy at 2:44 AM on April 4, 2012

In the previously-linked video, five people and one horse are involved in building a hayrick / haystack: horse 'operator', haygrab operator, rope operator, pitchfork operator (on the ground), and one guy on top of the haystack.

Fascinating :-)
posted by syzygy at 2:49 AM on April 4, 2012

Here's the beginning of the section in Far From the Madding Crowd that deals in some detail with the protection of wheat and barley against rain.
posted by emilyw at 3:57 AM on April 4, 2012

The crops stored indoors in Far from the Madding Crowd were grain crops rather than hay, though (at least, if I'm remembering right), which would make a difference; grain would typically be stored indoors, because rain could ruin it. Hay is just dried grass kept to feed livestock over autumn and winter, and won't cause as much of a problem. Damp hay can go mouldy, which is bad, but it's much more likely to do that when it gets warm and air can't circulate around it. (Damp/warm/mouldy hay can also spontaneously combust, if the conditions are right!)
posted by Catseye at 5:29 AM on April 4, 2012

Where I grew up, they had two hay seasons, one - a little depending on growth and rain and such - around June and another (hopefully) in early fall. Grass has to dry out on the field before it can be taken into the barn, or it would rot and heat up, as Catseye says. Many a barn or farm has burned down because of inadequately handled hay overheating. So either you let the cut grass lay about and turn it every day or two (that was the technique on the farm where I helped as a teenager), collecting it about after a week or so, if there wasn't any rain in the meantime, or you make stacks of various designs and let the hay sit out for as long as it takes to get dry all through.
posted by Namlit at 6:37 AM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: Well well well.....something I know first hand is useful.
I have been involved in buiding haystacks / hayricks when I was a kid. Later on I worked on farms for the hay harvest but ricks tended to have given over to inside storage in dutch barns, which were used for both hay and straw.
Hay, which is just dried grass, is harvested in June / July. Some years you can get two cuts of grass off of a field.
Pre baling machines the cut grass which had been left in lines to dry and regularily turned was laden with pitchforks onto carts either motor or horse drawn and taken to wherever it had been decided to build the rick.
The dry hay was then carefully heaped up on the stack, where an elder or more experanced farm hand organised it so there was a slight cant to the inside to stop the rick toppling as it got higher. Great care had to be taken to ensure the hay was fully dry and not 'green" otherwise a rick fire cound develop caused by spontaneous combustion. Some larger farms had a thermometer about a meter and half long which they could poke into the centre of the stack to make sure things were not hotting up.
After the stack had reached a suitable height it was the slanted in so a natural sloped roof was formed on two sides meeting in a crest at the middle,
The final layer was often made of the previous years straw thatched to provide a waterproof cover. This was pre the days of industrial sized rolls of plastic being readily available. Sometimes a canvas tarp was handy in case of storms when the rick was being built.
Here is an historical account of thatching hay and corn from 1939

Later on when I worked on farms the loose hay rick had gone out of style but many smaller farms who could not afford to build a barn still made stacks using baled hay. This had its own skills and the same heating dangers. The main skill was keeping the walls upright and not leaning out. This was also true of stacking in barns and on flatbed trailers. By this time plastic was more readily available and so thatching the rick had become a thing of the past. Chucking 60 - 80 lb bales of straw 12 ft up and more into the air took a bit of muscle but we managed it. We started in the morning when the dew burnt off and worked until sundown and frequently way after. Haymaking was a communal event, you worked for your neighbours and they worked for you, relatives would sometimes come to stay for a working holiday in the country. The men built the stacks and the women helped by turning the hay or rolling the bales and feeding the other workers. Warm starry evenings, hard physical labour, good beer and pretty farmgirls made it an enjoyable time of year.
The straw harvests I worked on were more industrial. We were loading 8 - 10 fourty foot trailers a day and moving them 60 miles and not finishing until the last one was unloaded and stacked, often at midnight and then up at six again the next morning
Hay is winter fodder for cattle, sheep and horses so the stacks would be left and not cut into until hard frosts or snow came when there was no natural grazing available.
posted by adamvasco at 6:45 AM on April 4, 2012 [44 favorites]

Response by poster: I am so grateful for all this information, almost pathetically so. It's really useful. Thank you so much!
posted by RokkitNite at 8:13 AM on April 4, 2012

I've seen haystacks still being made in a few fields in Montana. They were built with these temporary wooden sidewalls and not thatched in a formal way. Instead, the hay is combed on the top to shed water. Of course, Montana is a lot drier than the UK. Damp hay will indeed begin to smolder. My dad told me of a neighbor's hay harvest, held in bales in the barn, that smoldered slowly for weeks. Wet hay is still respirating. The temperature rises and it gives an ideal environment for bacteria to grow that also raises the temperature. If it gets hot enough, it will begin to smolder. Usually, it doesn't just go up in flames, it smokes a little and smells a lot because it doesn't have a lot of oxygen. If you make the mistake of digging down in it to see what's going on, that's when it really goes.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:25 PM on April 4, 2012

There's a description of a mechanical hay baler in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. Time period for that would have been 1860-1870, in New York state in the US.
posted by anaelith at 8:07 AM on April 5, 2012

I used to wonder how haystacks could set themselves on fire. In case anyone is interested, this is what happens:

Damp hay has bacteria on it that make it ferment. Hay on the outside of the haystack stays cool, but inside the haystack the temperature keeps rising as different populations of bacteria take over and the internal temperature rises to around 70 degrees centigrade (about 158 degrees fahrenheit). You then get a runaway chemical reaction that keeps the temperature rising until the internal hay starts charring. The charred hay loses strength and volume until the haystack collapses, oxygen rushes in, and the haystack catches fire. Or someone walks on top of the haystack and they fall into a smouldering inferno.

According to a quite recent study I read, the accepted best practice is to stick a long crowbar into the middle of any haystack that might be damp, and leave it for a few hours. If the crowbar is too hot to hold then the haystack needs to be taken apart. If it's really too hot then you probably should call the fire brigade.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:29 AM on April 8, 2012

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