JACKSON, Mont. - Located at 6,400 feet, nestled against the spine of the continental divide, lies the Big Hole Valley. This valley is cow country, known for its highly productive ground that puts weight on yearlings and grows some of the best wild grass hay in the region.
One thing that makes this valley particularly unique is how some ranchers choose to harvest their hay. It may be 2019, with agriculture ever advancing technologically, but there are some that prefer to put up their hay loose, in much the same way generations before them have.
Large round and/or square bales may be the preferred haying method for most, but Big Hole Rancher Dean Peterson finds that his hay keeps better in massive loose stacks. Because the stacks are domed, they can wick away moisture and snow. The outside layer of the stack may start to brown, but inside the hay stays green and lush.
“It is not uncommon for us to feed out of two- or three-year-old stacks. This year I have 40 stacks left over from last year,” Peterson stated.
Loose haying is a process. First the grass must be mowed. Peterson uses a combination of double and single sickle mowers to cut the grass. He admits the technology is a bit behind the times as most of his haying equipment was made prior to the 1980’s, but because of that, Peterson himself can work on the equipment.
“A $500 bill for a replacement motor is a big equipment bill for me. Now-a-days, so much of equipment is computerized and it’s hard for me to work on. Older equipment is simpler to fix,” explained Peterson.
After the grass is mowed it must lay and dry. Usually after three days or so the grass is ready to be raked. Side delivery rakes pulled by mid-century tractors start on the edge of the cut field and putt through the hay, slowly turning it into a single windrow. After the hay has been sufficiently turned, a piece of equipment known as a “buck rake” sweeps through the windrow picking up the loose hay.
“Buck rakes are usually one ton or one and a half ton truck frames with the motor and gears turned backwards. That way the radiator is behind, away from the hay and the steering is done from the back. The weight of the hay is then placed on the springs of the truck frame,” Peterson said.
Once the basket on the buck rake if filled, which on average is about one ton of hay, the driver steers the machine and its load of hay to the iconic Beaverslide.
After the hay is pushed onto the basket of the Beaverslide, a motorized hoist pulls the basket up the front of the Beaverslide and dumps the hay into the bent. This process is repeated until the bent is filled, which usually takes about 22 tons of hay. After the bent is full, the Beaverslide is pulled forward and the process begins again.
In the winter time, Peterson uses big grapple forks which are attached to four-wheel-drive tractors to extract the hay from the stack and place it on a flat-decked hay wagon. The hay is fed out to the cows in clumps and Peterson admits it takes a bit of a feel to know how much to feed, but after 35 years of doing it, Peterson feels he has it down.
“I gage it off of how much is left the next day. If the cows clean it all up and nothing is left, then I feed them a little more. If there is a lot left in the field then I cut them back some,” said Peterson.
Fewer and fewer ranches through the Big Hole Valley put up their hay loose, but some ranchers, like the Peterson family, hold on to the tradition.
“I can put 300 tons of loose hay up in a day. It’s a lot faster then putting it up in bales,” Peterson stated.
More then that, loose haying is somewhat of a tradition and a right of passage for those who have grown up in the Big Hole Valley. Peterson remembers driving the scatter rake at six years old and jokes that he hasn’t missed a haying season since. Peterson’s sons have had a similar experience.
“We have one old tractor that all the kids start out on because it has six-inch blocks bolted to the peddles,” Peterson says with a smile.
Legend has it the Beaverslide was invented in Beaverhead County, hence the name. Although it has showed up in other areas of Montana, the Big Hole will always be home to the Beaverslide as the valley remains nicknamed “the land of 10,000 haystacks.”