Thursday, May 27, 2010

Scything: Pros and Cons

Having not quite yet recovered from this afternoon's mad dash to get up all the freshly cut hay before a renegade thunderstorm let loose its mighty soak force, this may not be the ideal time to rationally assess whether scything is a better option for haying than mechanized mowing. I'll plow ahead, regardless, since I had some time while scything this morning to ponder the matter.

Aside from the previously-mentioned benefit of saving on fossil fuels, one of my favorite after-the-fact benefits is exercise. Some people pay good money to go to a gym. I do farm work. Scything helps keep me in shape and, unlike gym exercise, doesn't bore me or make me painfully aware of, well, pain. The motivation of providing food that I don't have to buy next winter for the buffalo is all I need to get me out there even when May's weather masquerades as August's. 

Probably what I like best about it is the opportunity to observe nature while getting something done. Unlike the lawn tractor which requires too much attention on my part and makes too much noise to watch/ listen to the birds and the frogs, the scythe is nearly silent. I can hear the difference between a downy and a pileated woodpecker and when I hear one of our resident red-shouldered hawks, I can stop to watch it soar over head. Once I shared the field with a wild turkey. He seemed quite unruffled by my movements, since I advance mere inches at a time. 

Likewise, critters that don't want to interact with me or my blade, get ample warning that I'm approaching and can move out of the way. I do worry that a fast-moving mower might injure a box turtle or a frog or a snake. Admittedly, a snake surprised me last week when I was raking hay. Well, I surprised it as I brought my rake down right next to it or maybe on it. Normally, the rat snakes are good about moving out of the way but for some reason this one hung around even thought I'd been raking in the area for awhile. It struck at the rake and then coiled up in classic don't-tread-on-me position. I felt terrible for having scared it, but I don't think I did any physical damage to it. 

By walking through the field so slowly and at different stages of the growing season, I'm able to get a really good sense for the variety of grasses, weeds, and other vegetation that from a distance just looks like a big, uniform field of grass. I'm far from being able to identify everything, but I'm at least learning how much I still have to learn. Again, doing this by hand allows me to pick out any toxic weeds that might be harmful to the buffs if they got mixed in with the hay. And I see the effects of my mistakes like not cutting the grass at the end of last season--tons of thatch!

Finally, I can get into the field when it's too wet for a tractor, so in that sense, I can get a head start on cutting. And I don't have to run into town first to get gasoline for the engine because I didn't realize we were out. When I'm ready and the grass is ready, the scythe is ready.

Cons? Well the main one--and it's a doozey--is that it's really slow! While that's nice for nature watching, it's lousy when you've got very few dry days in the forecast and the grass is losing nutritional value after it reaches a certain point in its development. If I had another person scything with me, it would be much more feasible. We could probably do half the field in one morning. Of course, that would turn out to be the day with a rogue thunderstorm and we'd lose half the crop. Maybe only doing a couple of rows at a time isn't so bad.....

Physical strain--the downside of the exercise--is another con. Particularly when there are other demanding chores awaiting, it's best not to get wiped out too early in the day. And if I overdo and actually damage something, then I'm really in a bind for further haying and all my other duties. 

The upshot? I think for next year, I may consider getting a mower attachment for our walk-behind tractor so I can get the hay cut quickly when there is a good window of opportunity. I'll still rake it by hand and stack it loose. And I'll use the scythe in some smaller patches around the property where the tractor can't go, just to keep up my technique. Never know when I might have to use it instead of having the luxury of choosing whether or not to scythe.

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