Family stacks hay the old way
AVON, Mont. (AP)--It's been nearly a century since Bill McIntosh's ancestors began gathering about this time of year in the dining room of the family's two-story farmhouse to prepare for a long day in the hayfields.
Spend a morning there now and it's likely you'd leave thinking not that much has changed since then.
On this day, morning's first light filters through windowpanes of the McIntosh home to cast a warm glow across a breakfast table. A border collie walks from chair to chair looking upward with hopeful eyes, but the handouts this day seem far and few between.
Slowly the chairs fill as members of the McIntosh family and their hay crew settle in for breakfast before the start of another day of cutting and stacking hay. The talk around the table soon turns to cattle and chores completed late the previous night.
Just outside, buck rakes and tractors fitted with mowers await.
These long hot summer days are perfect for putting up the hay the family needs to feed cows through the coming cold winter months on the ranch just six miles up the road from the tiny town of Avon.
While the family has long replaced the teams of draft horses used for the annual chore with internal combustion-powered machines, it has opted not to hurry too quickly into the modern age with its expensive hay balers and other technological gizmos.
Instead, the McIntosh family remains among the few who still put up hay stacked loose and high with the help of an ingenious contraption called a beaverslide.
Some say the device was invented in the early 1900s in Beaverhead County by a man named Armitage. Whatever its origins, the beaverslide offered a way ranchers could build stacks of loose hay that would last for years.
Already this year, the hundreds of acres of hay ground owned by the McIntosh family are capped by new stacks of loose green hay that tower nearly 30 feet above the ground. Mixed in and scattered about the place are the pale yellow stacks of last year's crop.
It's a tradition the McIntosh clan doesn't expect to replace anytime soon.
"This area used to put up their hay the same way 15 or 20 years ago," says Bill McIntosh, while filling up a buck rake's gas tank. "Now I think there are six of us around here who still put up loose hay."
The large haystacks were replaced by smaller round bales as ranchers ran into challenges finding help to run the equipment needed to put up hay using a beaverslide.
Here's how it works.
First you have to have a mowing crew to cut down the hay.
Then, you need someone to rake it all up into neat windrows using a side delivery rake that's typically pulled behind a tractor. And you'll need another tractor or two to pull scatter rakes that go around the field picking up any loose hay you might miss the first time around.
After that, the buck rakes do the job of pushing windrowed hay up into piles and then taking those piles to the beaverslide in the basket created by sharpened poles attached to the front of the contraption.
Buck rakes are typically made from truck chassis turned backward. The back wheels are controlled by the steering wheel and the front wheels are powered by the engine.
Then you need a hoist operator to run the machine used to pull the hay up and over the beaverslide and into the catch pen created by wire mesh sides and a backstop.
And if you want to do the job right and create the kind of rounded tops that will shed water, you need someone to climb up on top of the stack with a pitchfork and stomp it into shape.
For many ranchers today, it's just easier to buy a swather to cut and windrow the hay and a round-bale baler to bunch it all up. The job can be accomplished by a handful of people rather than a big haying crew.
The large old majestic haystacks are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Even in the Big Hole Basin, once known as the Land of 10,000 Haystacks, there are only a few ranchers who continue to put up their hay crop in the old-fashioned manner.
"We just think it's a good way of putting up hay," Bill says. "It keeps so much longer than hay that's been baled."
McIntosh is lucky enough to have nearly all the experienced crew he needs living right there under his own roof.
His wife, Jill, is the head buck raker, a job she's been doing since she was a teen. His daughter, Heather, just got a teaching job in Garrison, which of course means she'll have summers off and can man her own buck rake.
Sons Lou and Gil are also expert hay crew members. This year, Lou heads the two-person mowing crew and Gil runs a buck rake when he's not topping off haystacks.
Bill is the hoist operator, hay stacker and the guy everyone comes to when something goes wrong.
Bill looks up at his son Gib standing tall on top of the almost-finished haystack.
"Ready Gibber?" he yells. "Back or middle?"
Gib points forward.
"Comin' at you."
Bill's voice trails off as he reaches down and shoves the truck's transmission into gear. With a bit of a lurch, the truck's back wheels start to spin and the cables attached to the beaverslide's basket wrap around drums welded to the wheels. Another load of hay flies up the well-worn wood planks that line the front of the beaverslide.
The hay falls right into place on top of the growing haystack.
On the other side of the field, Becky Gallaher, a 16-year-old from California, is helping 12-year-old Kyle Heiple of Helena replace a broken tooth in her scatter rake. Kyle's sister, KayDee, is working on the mowing crew today.
For Gallaher, these two weeks or so are a chance to return to a place she lived as a little girl. She followed her sister, who spent the previous years haying at the McIntosh place.
"I took my sister's spot," she says. "I'm saving up for a car. This is a chance to make some money. You can't spend anything here."
The nearest town, after all, is Avon and it's not much more than a wide spot in the road.
Gallaher doesn't much care. She too busy enjoying the sights.
"I took a run last night and the sunset was so beautiful," she says. "The mountains were this deep blue, the sky was pink and the sun was red. It was the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen."
In Montana, haying has traditionally offered young people a chance to learn what work is all about.
"It's harder to find kids who want to come out and do this any more," Bill says. "A lot of kids these days just don't want to get all that far from town. We've always been lucky to have really good hay crews."
The equipment the family uses for haying is often old and outdated, but that doesn't really matter. After all, Bill says, it only has to run about 15 days a year.
Jill McIntosh is the queen of the buck rake. She has driven the machines since she was a girl.
The McIntosh family has always had a soft spot for anything historical. They bought the old store building in Avon to ensure it wouldn't meet a wrecking ball.
"Every time you lose a place like that store, you get that much further away from what went on back then," Bill says. "I hate to see it all disappear."
He hopes someday to restore that old building to something close to what it was. His wife has thought about putting in a quilt shop. And maybe there's some other venture that would fit into the historic setting that would help the family's bottom line.
"We want to be able to use that building in a way that will bring people into it," he said. "I hope that might help them to understand what it was. If I could do that, it would be worth it all to me."
Meanwhile Bill sends another load up on top of a stack that's almost finished. He picks up a pitchfork and climbs the ladder attached to the side of the beaverslide.
It's his turn to swing the pitchfork and stomp down the center of the stack to ensure it stands tall and its corners are round enough to shed the rain and snow that are sure to come.
From that high vantage, he can see his family and the three youngsters he's hired to fill out the rest of the hay crew.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Bill says, looking out across the field where his wife, daughter and son are all zooming around in the buck rakes. "I have my family together here with me on this place that has so much family history.
"I really just wouldn't want to do anything else."