Memories of making hay, lark song

23:09, Nov 23 2012

Everyone was revelling in the glorious first burst of real sunshine we'd had since the long-wilted summer before last winter.

It was that wonderful week at the end of October, when Superstorm Sandy crashed into the eastern seaboard of the United States, wrecking hundreds of thousands of homes, killing dozens of people, creating billions of dollars of damage, and putting the last-minute run-up to the presidential election on hold.

Here in the Waikato it was glorious - what one friend described as "filling me with vitamin D and making me feel just great". We had brilliant blue skies flecked with puffs of mushroom-coloured cloud, there were light breezes that dried the washing within a couple of hours, and there were a million birds and little beasties going about the urgent business of coping with another season of breeding and caring for a new generation.

It fascinates me to watch sparrows manhandling a single straw off the ground, through the air and in between the branches of a tree so it can be woven into a nest; or see a blackbird or starling or mynah wrestling with a flexible twig or sliver of plastic or a strip of cabbage-tree leaf, hauling it into a tree or under the eaves of an adjacent house.

All these little guy and girl birds are doing serious dawn-to-dusk home-building. Then within a week or two they are frantically scrabbling up worms and beetles and spiders and grubs, and shovelling them down the insatiable necks of wide-mouthed chicks. Then they're back-loading nifty little pellet-bags of poo from the nest, and somehow, they always target my car.

I reckon if I left my car in one place for three or four seasons, I could open my own phosphate-rock business.


Anyway . . . that sunshine got us all out there and doing stuff.

Townies burst out into the sunshine and were flat out getting vege and flower gardens planted out and the seedlings properly watered.

Windows got cleaned and paths got swept and lawn edges got trimmed, and people felt good about being out there in shorts and skinny clothes, soaking up those warm, health-inspiring rays, and loving the heat after a long, cold, sodden winter.

It's always like that at this time of year.

On the land, the farmers are shedding leggings, jackets, beanies and gloves, and they're also working some of the longest hours of the year.

Many are crawling out of bed long before dawn to bring in cows that are producing their best flushes of milk from the lush grasses the sunshine has produced with those several days of 20-plus degrees Celsius warmth.

Calves by now are largely weaned off and instead are being given the choicest pickings on the farm, while over the fence on the sheep farms, the lambs are coming up for the unpleasant but necessary business of docking.

Deer farmers are watching as the hinds become secretive and sidle off to secluded areas for the birth of tiny spotted fawns.

These little miracles will mostly lie curled up, looking like a patch of dried mud, or a cowpat or a speckled piece of shade, motionless and invisible even to the keen eyes of the hawks.

They only come alive to the gentle, soft calls of their mothers at dawn and dusk, when it is safest for feeding time.

At Rukuhia, the great sweep of Hamilton Airport's east-west grass runway was being mowed when I went into Hamilton in the morning.

A powerful tractor with a three-metre mower was moving at speed and with considerable precision as it raced in neat lines up and down the grassed strips either side of the permanently mowed unsealed landing runway.

The newly mown grass lay in tidy narrow rows, wilting in the bright sun.

When I came back in mid-afternoon the whole mowed area was a swirling mass of big machinery, with three separate lots of activity going on. I stopped to watch.

One tractor was towing an enormous multi-wheeled rake which swept several lines of wilted grass into a dense, fluffy windrow.

Working half an hour behind it were two huge balers, each greedily scoffing up a windrow amid a small cloud of greenish dust.

Mechanical belts and arms flailed around inside the balers, and every 75 metres or so each machine would halt temporarily and yet another great green plastic-wrapped "egg" would be laid and neatly flipped sideways so that it stood on one flat end.

And behind the balers, a slow-moving low-loader truck crept along, while yet another tractor busily snapped up each bale with a pair of powerful hydraulic pincers, hoisting it on to the truck deck. Three rows - two down, one up - of about 20 or more of the bales made a full load on the truck.

Way above all the noise and the dust and planes trundling in and out of the airport not far from all the activity, two larks were spiralling round and round, trilling and skirling their songs as they worked their way ever higher on invisible thermals.

They stayed up in the sharp blue sky for some minutes, then began a lazy swirl back to Earth, suddenly closing down their song and dropping the last 30 metres in swift silence.

Their nesting places were out on the shorter, permanently mowed landing ground, where the grass was long enough for the small birds to sink on to a nest and be out of sight, but short enough to stand slowly and watch through the grass blades for any approaching predator.

For as long as I can remember, larks have been the high-level songsters of the farmland, and I remember as a small boy lying flat on my back, eyes shaded from the sun, and seeking out the tiny speck of fluttering brown as one of the little birds wheeled in wide circles. They were often almost too high to see.

They would stay aloft for 10 or 15 minutes perhaps, then down they would swing in ever tighter spirals, before making that last quick, quiet dive to the ground.

Their song is a sound I have always associated with the business of hay-making, though when we were kids, more than half a century ago, hay-making was much more hands-on.

We had one little Fergie 35 tractor and a single cutter-bar mower about 1.5m wide, and mowing involved driving round and round the paddock in an ever-decreasing circle.

I would often start the cutting not long after sunrise while Dad finished off the milking. We might do three paddocks by lunchtime.

At some stage, we'd break off the round-and-round and do the back-cut - the outer edge of the paddock over which the tractor had run while the first inside cut was made in the paddock.

That back-cut, mown in reverse, always produced the heaviest bales in the paddock.

We wouldn't touch the mown grass again until about 9am the following day, but as soon as the overnight dew had dried off it, we'd start turning it and fluffing it, to get the maximum drying from wind and sun.

If we could, we'd turn it again later that day. Dad would often walk out across the paddock with a three-pronged pitch-fork, teasing out the denser tangles so they would dry faster.

The smell and texture of the stalks was always the indicator of how well the hay was making up.

In really warm, dry weather, the cut grass turned quite quickly from moist green leaf to brittle tawny stalk. The best test was to see whether the knuckles on cocksfoot or fog-grass stalks were dry enough to snap when bent.

Then in would come the contract baler, chuffing and chugging round the paddock behind the tractor, shoving out a stream of rough-edged bales. That meant the start of the final rush - picking up each bale by the strings, kneeing it up to chest height and then hurling it up on to the truck deck, where two stackers frantically and neatly stacked them all in interlocking rows.

There was a brief respite while we rode in to the hayshed, perched high on the truck to catch any cooling breeze.

It was always the tradition to unload the truck and stack the bales in the shed before everyone turned, gasping and sweat-sodden, to the cream can of cool water that could be mixed with lemon syrup or a spicy, chilli-hot additive my mother made called OT.

It tasted of cloves and burnt sugar, and after the last mouthful had been gulped down, the chilli-hot sting caught the back of the throat powerfully. It was a marvellous thirst-quencher.

And when the hay was all in for the season, and the shed doors secured against marauding stock, there was a huge sense of relief, knowing the winter could be faced with a fair degree of certainty that the stock would come through well.

I would guess it's still like that on most farms.

Kingsley Field can be contacted at