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Making hay the old school way

Date

John Elder

In the late 1960s the three Smith brothers, Ballarat boys, had 300 tonnes of hay that nobody wanted. The produce stores were over-run with a glut of horse feed and the money wasn't good anyway.

"Our land wasn't good potato country, so we had to diversify," says David Smith, now 65.

They took a punt and bought an old boiler and a chaff cutter, thinking that horse owners would rather pay $65 a tonne for bags of chaff than $18 a tonne for hay tied up in sheaves.

"We thought if we could do the work of cutting it up, adding value, it might make us a living,'' he says.

It took two years of getting the word around, knocking on doors. More than 40 years later, the Smiths are still running their boiler which dates from the 1920s, maybe earlier. The boiler provides steam that toughens the hay - essentially keeps it supple - so it doesn't crumble to dust when being cut. Curiously, the touch of steam doesn't damage the hay. "But if you get it wet, it turns mouldy.''

From the top of an elevator where the hay is steamed, it travels on a belt through a series of mechanical knives before it's routed into a storage cylinder attached to a double-bagging machine. A couple of workers feed the hay in at one end, a couple more seal the bags at the other.   

At its peak, the Smith Brothers Chaff Mill ran for 80 hours a week. "We started the day at a reasonable hour but the days were long, we'd be going until 10 o'clock at night.''

They were turning out 150,000 bags a year.  "It's much less now.''

Seven years ago, the chaff was delivered by the semi-trailer load. That ended when the horse flu epidemic wiped out a large portion of the local equine population.

"It never really recovered after that,'' says Smith. "Now we use a tray bed.''

The Smiths, however, continue to diversify and survive. "We're growing a few more potatoes. And we do a little bit of contracting.''

Still, their bread and butter comes from chaff. "There'll still be a market there. It won't go away,'' says  Mr Smith. "It all depends on what share of the market you want. At my age, it's not a large share.''

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