How to Cut and Bale Hay by Hand

It's hard work, but if you have a little grass and a few animals, you can cut and bale hay by hand.

We didn't own a tractor until recently, so years ago we cut and baled our hay by hand.

Why you might want to bale hay by hand

Why would we do this, when it's so easy to use a tractor and haying equipment? Well, if you've priced that equipment recently, you know the answer to that question. The price is astronomical. And if you only have a few acres, or just a few animals to feed, it isn't worth the money we'd have to shell out.

How about custom haying - hiring someone to cut and bale the hay? Custom baling is cheaper than buying your own haying equipment, but most ranchers who do custom baling have a minimum number of acres they'll cut for you. Our acreage isn't large enough for them to bother with.

This post was updated in 2020.

So, we did the next best thing: we learned how to do it ourselves. 

Yes, it's labor intensive. And while we no longer do this - we are many years older now, and hubby ("the Chief") has health issues - we did it ourselves for many years.

How we bale hay by hand

We started out storing our hay loose in several sheds and anywhere we could find a few square feet of dry storage space. 

Eventually we built a hand baler. Using a hand baler doesn't really save on labor or time, but it did make our hay easier to store, and we needed less space in which to store it.

A friend in Texas sent us a link to these plans and the Chief set to work on it. The baler in the plans is to be used in making a bale of pine straw, but it works just fine to bale our mixed-grass hay.

We are, however, the first to admit that the plans are rather vague. Fortunately the Chief is a handy guy with a lot of building experience and he figured it out.
Even without a hand baler you can cut and store your own hay. You'll just need more space to store it. 

How we cut our hay

Our hay field is about 10 acres, so obviously we worked on it a little at a time, and it took us most of the summer to get completely around the field.

The Chief cut the grass with our DR brush-mower - or whatever brand we happen to have. We've gone through a few of them over the years!

Once the grass is dry - which takes about one day in our hot Oklahoma summers - I use a fan rake to rake it up in windrows.

Baling hay by hand

How to bale hay by hand

Is it necessary to bale this hand-cut hay? No, of course not. You can store loose hay in a dry place; it won't lose any nutritional value if it isn't baled.

The major drawback to storing it loose, as I said, is that it takes up a lot more space. Baling hay compresses it so it requires less space, and bales can be stacked more efficiently too. 

Making hay bales, whether by hand or by machine, is simply a matter of saving space.

Our homemade hay baler

So we (or rather, the Chief) built this hand baler using these [rather vague] plans.

We used baling wire to wrap the bales because we had two rolls of it in the garage, left by the former property owner. 

The hand baler plans suggest using baling twine, which is much faster to set up. We bought a box of twine, opting for the lighter gauge because it was cheaper and our bales were smaller than the usual commercial bales, so we thought we wouldn't need the heavier twine.

The lighter-gauge twine we bought tended to break when pulled tight around our hand-made bales. The heavier twine would have worked better. We ended up using the baling wire we had on hand instead.

How we bale hay by hand

How to set up the baler to make a new bale

On the back of the baler are two small nails, one on each side of the board that holds the plunger. The plans call for cup hooks instead of the nails, but that's what we had on hand and they work fine.

Tie a loop in the twine and attach it to the nails on the back - or make a small circle or loop in the baling wire and slip it over the nail. Repeat for another length of twine or wire and attach to the nail or cup hook on the other side of the plunger.

Run these two lengths of twine or wire over the top and down into the interior of the baler.

Baling hay by hand

Inside the baler, the twine or wire is run between the eye on the bottom of the baler and the wooden board, just to hold it in place. It doesn't go through the eye, but instead it is in the space between the eye and the board. 

Once you finish tying up the bale, the wire/twine slips out when you remove the bale. It's quite ingenious.

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So, first we string those two wires or twine pieces from the nails in back, over the back of the baler and into the interior, and between the eyes and the board. Then the door of the baler is shut - held closed with a hook and eye at the top and another set at the bottom - and the bottom ends of the twine or wire are fed out through the slits in the door.

Filling the baler with hay

Hay is added through the opening in the top. When full, the plunger is used to pack down the hay, then more is added, plunging after each addition.

Finally, the end of the wire or twine is removed from the little nails on the back and laid across the top of the hay, then out through the slits in the front of the door.

Push the plunger down again to compress the hay and tie the bale up tightly using the two ends of the twine or wire.

Our homemade hay baler

Release the plunger, open the door, and remove the bale of hay. It will slip right out if you set up the twine correctly. As I said before, ingenious!

Our homemade hay baler, how we bale hay by hand

How big are the handmade bales? My best guess is that they are about one-third to half the size of a regular small square bale. They're not compressed as tightly as a commercial bale, so they aren't exactly equivalent.

Yes, they are smaller than commercial square bales, but they take up much less space than loose hay and are easier to feed.

How we bale our hay by hand

We baled enough of our hand-cut hay from our 10-12 acre field to feed our herd of dairy goats and two horses over the winter. Your yield will vary depending on the size of your field, the type of grass you grow, and the amount of rainfall in your area.

Additional photos of the baler

These photos were taken about a year after making the baler, and you can see that the wood has weathered. I suggest storing the baler out of the weather - or painting it - so it will last longer.

Also, please excuse the junk pile behind the baler. I should have moved it to take the photos.

Homemade hay baler

How to bale hay by hand

Baling hay by hand with a homemade hay baler

The Chief agrees that the plans online are pretty vague, and he hopes these photos are helpful. Unfortunately there are no step-by-step directions for building the baler. We did not develop the plans or write those vague directions.


The following links are the only and best "plans" for the hand baler that I can find.

(Please notify me if links are broken. We do not own the plans nor the websites where the plans are posted, and occasionally websites are removed or reorganized. I do try to keep the links current.)

A Low-Cost Pine Straw Box Baler from the North Carolina Forest Service.

Pine Straw Baler #1 and Pine Straw Baler plans #2 from the LSU College of Agriculture.

Here's a video showing how to use the hand baler.

This website has directions to build a hand-powered leaf and hay baler. While this one is a different type - horizontal rather than vertical - the principle is the same, and some might appreciate the step-by-step building instructions included with this one.

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Have grass? You can make hay! Here's how we did it.

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