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Hay, What's all the Fuss About?

Barns are often considered very impressive buildings, and rightly so. Gambrel roof barns, more commonly known as “hip-roof” barns in this part of the world, are especially impressive looking, what with their lofty height, distinctive shape and usually bold red colouring. What’s interesting about these barns is that their impressive look was mostly due to the need for storage of a rather humble, yet necessary, material: hay.

How important was hay? I asked this question of nearly all my informants, and they all gave me a look that said, “you idiot.” But they answered anyway, because I had forewarned them that some of my questions would seem incredibly stupid. “Real important, really important,” Frank Porte emphasised, “because I can tell you about the ’30s.”  I will let my informants speak for themselves:

In case the embedded video doesn’t work, check out the video on YouTube here

The Top Three Most Interesting Facts Ever About Hay in Southern Saskatchewan

1. Hay dictated the dominant style of barns in this region. A gambrel roof barn had a large capacity for hay, and hay was integral to the survival of livestock through the winter, particularly the work horses which were indispensable to farming prior to the 1930s. Additionally, many barns had hay slings, which was a method of transporting loose hay into the loft whereby a system of ropes and pulleys on a track pulled hay up from the hay rack (wagon) into the loft. Any gambrel roof with a “peak’ (sometimes called a hay hood) invariably indicates a hay sling. Some barns without peaks still had slings – a track extending outward from the loft doors is an indication of this.

The peak is a dead giveaway that this gambrel style barn west of Ceylon was built with a hay sling. If you look closely, you can see its track. 
Here’s a close-up of a hay sling track. Some barns had these even without the peak or “hay hood.”

2.  Most hay in the region was “slough hay.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “slough”, it refers to a wetland, a body of water. Sloughs are prone to drying out in the summer. The use of “tame hay” or sown hay did not become common until the middle of the twentieth century. Most informants mentioned the ’30s, a time of terrible drought in the prairies, commonly known as the “Dirty Thirties.” Sloughs failed to produce enough hay, and many farmers resorted to procuring hay from elsewhere, such as Manitoba (they either bought it and had it shipped, or travelled east themselves to cut it and bring it home), or resorted to desperate methods: cutting a common weed, Russian Thistle, and mixing it with straw to feed the cattle.

3. The evolution of hay spelled the end for many barns. The original purpose of the big red barn was as a horse house and a hay house. There were usually a few milk cows thrown in there, but generally the barn was meant to house and feed the workhorses, the indispensable power of farm machinery before the tractor. Within just a few years, tractors mostly replaced horses, but still the barns were used to house horses, milk cows, pigs and calves. Hay was still needed for all of these, and so hay storage remained important. Loose hay was replaced with bales in around the ’50s. The earlier square bales and small round bales continued to be stored in the loft. But the development of large round bales in the 1970s eventually spelled the end for the loft’s use. Large round bales are too heavy for a loft, and their shape sheds water, meaning they can  be left outside. Thus hay, the original reason for the gambrel roof barn, eventually brought about its end.

Thanks to big round bales like these, barns like the one in the background became almost totally obsolete. Is it just me, or do the bales seem smug?

One comment on “Hay, What's all the Fuss About?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I remember stories of Nova Scotia sending hay to the West…

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