Monday, March 29, 2010

It's a Tie!

And you thought I was going to talk about basketball, didn’t you!
But no, this little piece is about something much humbler, much more common; nearly every farm keeps some of it handy for those little emergencies when you need to tie a gate shut or make a fast sham of a fence repair.

I’m talking about baler twine, that ubiquitous, often ratty-looking string drooped on bushes and hanging off fences, made from either sisal or polypropelene, and which has a way of filling in for the “real thing” in so many circumstances on a farm, not to mention, handles the tough job of keeping hay orderly and compressed into bales. Thank goodness for baler twine!

It’s surprisingly tough. We throw the finished bales from the field onto a wagon, using the twine for handles; we tug it back out of the barn later in the season to feed—using the twine for handles; all throughout the feeding season, we depend on that twine to keep order in our barns, and get the hay from the barn to the livestock—without breaking.

The history of grain and hay harvesting is rather –shall we say—“entwined.” In both cases, harvesting is a big job! Until the 1930’s hay was harvested by cutting, raking and manually making large hay stacks. Often it was stacked outside, shaped in such a way that water mostly ran off. The process was as old as time itself, but losses were significant compared to the amounts initially laid down.

Harvesting grain, on the other hand, was done by hand for thousands of years, using hand sickles. It was carried in untied bundles to the threshing floor. The process was exceedingly labor-intensive.

Grain harvesting here in the United States began to change in the late 19th century when Robert McCormick designed a grain reaper which cut the grain and deposited it on an apron where it was conveyed onto the ground beside the machine. While that was a big improvement, a worker still had to walk beside the reaper and gather the grain off the platform behind the sickle when enough had accumulated to form a small pile. The bundles still had to be tied. Tying was done mostly by women.

But several inventors in the late 1800’s started thinking about trying to reduce both the labor and the losses and make more efficient use of barn storage space.  They focused  devising a method for compressing the forage into neater packages.

Eventually, Cyrus McCormick and others put their collective (or competitive) ideas together and in 1872 the first reaper (called a binder) was produced. Initially, this was used to “bind” the sheaves of grain. (Keep in mind that baling hay came after the mechanized binding of grain.) If you’re ever traveling on Interstate 81, if you “bail” off at Exit 205, you can visit the Cyrus McCormick Farm Museum, and see many interesting farm implements of the 19th century, including early binders. The first binder used wire. Two steel arms caught each side of the grain, whirled a wire around it, fastened the ends of the wire with a twist and cut the bundle, which then dropped to the ground for pick up in a separate operation.

But, as innovative and labor-saving as this process was, there were still problems: The wire would often break. It was not uncommon for the livestock unknowingly to ingest a piece of wire and acquire what farmers call, “hardware disease”—meaning they accidentally ate a piece of wire, it poked the gut, and the animal died. Also not uncommon, was when the wire pieces would mix with grain. Traveling through the various grinding processes of a flour mill, the stray metal generated a spark which, in turn, created an explosive fire in the flour mill. Several flour mills burned to the ground as a result. Finally, the wire was challenging for handlers. All too often, it seriously injured workers as a result of deep lacerations on their hands. So, while the labor-intensive work of gathering and storing grain/hay had been somewhat reduced by this first attempt at mechanization, there was obviously room for improvement.

Along came John Appleby, who devised a knotter device that used twine rather than wire. In 1879 William Deering and Company reached an agreement to commercially produce a reaper using the knotter, which went into full production in 1880. It was only a matter of time until the harvesting of forage crops (hay and fodder)—and binding them into easy-to-store cubes for over-wintering became the target for improved methods and “binder twine” became a farm staple.

Two kinds of twine are used today: one is made from sisal, mainly in Brazil; the other is polypropylene. With time, improvements in both types have made the process of saving forage both simpler and easier, to the point where cutting, baling and storing of hay can be a one-person job. The resultant product in most cases nowadays is a round bale, compressed so tightly that water doesn’t penetrate the interior of the bale. We’ve even taken storage one step farther as farmers, today, have the ability to wrap their bales in waterproof bags.  That process keeps the forage fresh with little waste. But nothing, so far, has replaced the need for twine.

So, what ELSE can baler twine do around the farm? Here’s a short list:

Tie a gate shut…or open; tie down a tarp; make a dog leash; make a horse halter; tie up a box of chickens; make a bucket handle; tie a pig in a poke; mark a garden row; string up string beans; hold your pants up; hang up a bunch of onions; tie back a wild rose; tie a hat down on a windy day; make a (temporary) fence repair (sham); create a make-do shoelace….and the list goes on!

There’s always a leftover piece of baler twine on the fence near a gate on this farm. There’s probably a leftover length or two on the tractor; some in the trailer; some near the chicken coop; a piece or three in the garden…you never know when you'll need a piece for some emergency.  A farm simply cannot live without baler twine! My sincere thanks to
Bridon Cordage for their informative article on the role of twine in North American agriculture.  If you'd like more information go to Bridon Cordage and you'll get the whole picture of the importance of a little tiny bit of string!


  1. Ultimately useful, good old baler twine or as it was known in London, (where I worked with horses), hay tie. Unfortunately the Brtish version is a rather glaring orange.

  2. Elora -- Most of the bales of straw that I buy for my garden have an orange synthetic twine type of binding. I save it for "whatever" needs in the garden. But the synthetic binding material is slippery and hard to use sometimes. I wish that the farmers would just use the sisal. I am not a farmer, just an old time gardener. But farming was a way of life with my grandparents and I hung around farms through my youth, learning a lot about the old ways of farming. So much has changed -- and the example of synthetic binding instead of sisal binding is one. Sometimes the old materials are the best.

  3. So true, Barbara! It's that dratted polypropelene, which doesn't break down...except when you want to use if for something. The sun does eat it up. But it's a very "unfriendly" companion. Far and away, we prefer good ole sisal! Our OLD baler doesn't "like" poly. It only works well with the sisal. Probably because it was manufactured when poly wasn't born yet!

    Ruta, you mentioned "bright orange," too. Wonder if yours and Barbara's twine came from the same source?