“I went to work and spread about five loads of hay this morning that has been bunched for a week. We got in one load of it and two showers between that time and noon wet the rest pretty thoroughly. But about two o’clock the wend commenced blowing very hard and we went to work and shook it all out and got it dry and got in two loads without the least damage. The rest is bunched up tonight.”
Early farmers noticed that growing fields produced more fodder in the spring than the animals could consume, and that cutting the grass in the summer, allowing it to dry and storing it for the winter provided their domesticated animals with better quality nutrition than simply allowing them to dig through snow in the winter to find dried grass. Therefore, some fields were "shut up" for hay.
Up to the end of the 19th century, grass and legumes were not often grown together because crops were rotated. By the 20th century, however, good forage management techniques demonstrated that highly productive pastures were a mix of grasses and legumes, so compromises were made when it was time to mow. Later still, some farmers grew crops, like straight alfalfa (lucerne), for special-purpose hay such as that fed to dairy cattle.
Much hay was originally cut by scythe by teams of workers, dried in the field and gathered loose on wagons. Later, haying would be done by horse-drawn implements such as mowers. With the invention of agricultural machinery such as the tractor and the baler, most hay production became mechanized by the 1930s.
After hay was cut and had dried, the hay was raked or rowed up by raking it into a linear heap by hand or with a horse-drawn implement. Turning hay, when needed, originally was done by hand with a fork or rake. Once the dried hay was rowed up, pitch forks were used to pile it loose, originally onto a horse-drawn cart or wagon, later onto a truck or tractor-drawn trailer, for which a sweep could be used instead of pitch forks.
Loose hay was taken to an area designated for storage—usually a slightly raised area for drainage — and built into a hay stack. The stack was made waterproof as it was built (a task of considerable skill) and the hay would compress under its own weight and cure by the release of heat from the residual moisture in the hay and from the compression forces. The stack was fenced from the rest of the paddock in a rick yard, and often thatched or sheeted to keep it dry. When needed slices of hay would be cut using a hay-knife and fed out to animals each day.
On some farms the loose hay was stored in a shed or barn, normally in such a way that it would compress down and cure. Hay could be stored in a specially designed barn with little internal structure to allow more room for the hay. Alternatively an upper story of a cow-shed or stable was used, with hatches in the floor to allow hay to be thrown down into hay-racks below.
Depending on region, the term "hay rick" could refer to the machine for cutting hay, the hay stack or the wagon used to collect the hay.