J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 4-4-11 | TheFencePost.com

J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 4-4-11

J.C. Mattingly Moffat, Colo.

There was a time, back in the mid-1970s, when a 90-pound bale was called a “Big Bale.” We tried to make a 65-pound bale because a good bale of that weight sold for $3 a bale, while a 90-pounder sold for the same money, if not a bit less, because nobody wanted to lift them.

I remember one summer in those days when we were having really good luck with our haying. We’d put up our first three fields without any rain, and the dews had been ideal for the alfalfa part of it. A person tends to remember the good times with haying because, unfortunately, they tend to be somewhat rare.

We’d had thunderstorms go right around us, so we started on our last 80 acres feeling pretty lucky. We baled all night with our two John Deere 466 balers, finishing the field around mid-morning. There wasn’t a cloud

in the sky, so we figured it would be OK to trust our luck by eating breakfast and taking a nap before starting the stackers.

We were plenty tired and went to bed, only to wake up in the early afternoon to thunder. I looked outside and saw an utter cloudburst hitting on top of our baled field. Actually, it was the heaviest rain I’d ever seen, coming down like water being poured out of a big bucket.

After is subsided, we had to criticize ourselves for not stacking, but the worst was yet to come. When I checked the field the next day, I noticed that quite a few of the bales were banana-shaped, and sure enough, about one in 10 bales had expanded so much from the rain – the bales being on edge for the stacker, with the cut edge up – that moisture had gone into some of the bales with such force that it expanded them to the point of breaking one string.

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I started out with a wad of string and a pocketknife to put these bales back together using a pulley knot. As

I turned one of the broken bales up for the mending job, a rattler struck out from the opposite side of the bale, the part that had been on the ground. It was my good fortune that enough of the snake was still packed into the

bale that his striking range was only about a foot, and I was about 14 inches away. The rattler, of course,

was understandably angry. I couldn’t really blame the snake for striking, but it proved a valuable lesson. As we turned the other bales for mending, we kicked them over first to check the bottom side.

It was many months before I could pick up a bale without a slight flinch, remembering the head of that rattler coming at me from the haystems.

When I told others about this encounter with a rattler, I learned it’s fairly common for all types of snakes to be baled up and moved to new locations with a load. It may even explain the presence of the occasional rattler in territories outside their normal range. For instance, a friend told me about finding a rattler up near a trailhead in the Sangres where he set up base camps for his outfitting business, an area that has never had rattlers and is full of bull snakes. He speculated that the rattler had traveled up to that elevation in a bale of hay, brought along for the pack animals.

Other folks told me about finding rattlers in bales on the stacker table when they had to stop and adjust a mis-oriented bale, so it pays to be a little bit cautious this summer when handling bales.