Hay is for Hosses

by Steve Gerkin


Kelly Cox towered over the loader with its arriving bale, wielding a hay hook in each hand like a pirate of the plains, ready to stab the end of each parcel of dried grasses and sling it into place on the flatbed of his hay truck. He shouted over the mechanical din, “Life can’t get any better than this.” But, in fact, it should.

It’s another August harvest south of Bixby and Cox grins in spite of the grim reality that debilitating drought had stunted the prime time for grass growing, nearly eliminating the largest of the usual three-crop season. A recent half-inch of rain nourished the parched shoots, creating a small growth spurt, enough to warrant cutting and baling. Cox, his helper Kurtis, and wife Joyce, made hay.

Joyce drove her husband’s ’56 Ford slowly down the row of baled hay, lining up the loader that snatched each bale and raised it up to the deck of the flatbed. The crunch of the big, black tires as they rolled over the stubble of the shorn grasses created a sound like crumpling paper. The dryness of the earth produced a haze of fine dust that partially shrouded the truck and crew.

The hay making its way up the loader was Haygrazer (a Sudan and Sorghum hybrid) grass planted after the last freeze with a grain drill pulled behind the tractor, relying on gravity to feed the seed into the ground. Alfalfa is planted in the fall and harvested in May and, then depending on rainfall, is cropped up to five times. On average, alfalfa provides three cutting opportunities. Yet, the dryness of 2012 yielded only two cuttings of any kind of hay.

Listen to Kris Gosney tell how she and her husband decided to switch from conventional to organic farming.

Quick to laugh and prone to jawboning, punctuating everything with gestures, Cox kept a near constant monologue with his longtime buddy Kurtis. They were moving hay bales like the farmers of the old days, sweating and content.

* * *

Cox was attracted to hay hauling for the girls; the boy haulers with bronze tans and Popeye arms got all the girls. He mounted his first hay truck at age 12, working with his brother, taking orders from his dad. Scared to death, he shouldered the wheel applying the farmer’s work ethic learned in his early years with a surrogate family.

In the late 1950s, there were no daycare centers in rural Oklahoma. Cox’s mom worked as a secretary for various oil companies, while his dad, Joseph Franklin Cox Jr., farmed hay. An unruly 2-year-old Cox shuffled between a host of babysitters incapable of corralling his spirit. Then he bunked at the house of his father’s friend, Otis Hullsenbeck, who kept the young boy until he was 7 years old.

On Leonard Mountain there were only woods, cows, pastures, and hillbillies like Otis. The coon dog trainer and his charge spent most of their days outside, riding horses and becoming big pals. Cox, innocent to the primitive living conditions (he took his baths in a metal wash tub), learned the backwoods life. He helped Otis and his wife pull water from a well with a rope and bucket, dug up potatoes they stored in the earth outside the front door, and helped raise coon dogs for sale. “He told me about Jesse James hiding treasures in nearby caves and treated me like a son,” Cox recalled.

Back on the family farm, the youth became a trusted hand. Under a photo of Cox from that era, his mom inscribed, “Kelly was different—always wants to be outside.” Their living conditions were relatively spartan; the temperature inside the house was the same as outside. “We didn’t have a thermostat until I was 17,” Cox said. “If I left a glass of water on the counter on a winter night, it was frozen by morning. Didn’t think anything of it.”

Cox was attracted to hay hauling for the girls; the boy haulers with bronze tans and popeye arms got all the girls.

Cox lived with his grandparents during the week while going to school in Bixby. The creature comforts there were likewise sparse. When his Grandpa made it clear that baths were only permitted on Saturdays, Cox said, “I yelled, ‘Whoo-hooooo.’ ” Near the end of one week, he started losing hearing in an ear. The physician cleaned the dirt pile from his ear and made a diagnosis: He had a bean growing in it. Cox recalled a reporter from the Bixby paper taking a picture of him.

Grandpa Cox was his buddy. They’d rock on a front porch swing, the 10-year-old listening as his mentor extolled the virtues of telling the truth, helping friends and strangers, and other life lessons—the same ones ingrained in his father.

His father developed incurable lung cancer from a lifetime of cigarette smoking. Now a Bixby sophomore, Cox dropped baseball so he could take up the slack. He paid the pecan pickers, tended the pigs, maintained the equipment. His brother and sister pitched in where they could. When his dad passed, his daily slopping of the pigs that he enjoyed because, “I get a kick out of watching pigs eat,” became secondary to managing the family business, which included the hay crop.

With his mother’s help, 17-year-old Cox borrowed money to buy a new RAM truck for sale and a hay bale loader. He and his buddies joked that the Bixby girls took notice. “I started the business for all the wrong reasons,” said Cox, laughing, “but we’re still doing it today.”

He’s the last left working the old homestead farm his ancestors tilled before him. His parents harvested pecan trees that still wind their way through the property. They grew tomatoes, cantaloupes, and watermelons. The pigs rutted until the big trucks came and took them away. The Cox brood counted on all the fruits of the land, but hay ruled the roost.

Except for his years at Oklahoma State University, Cox has lived on and worked the same piece of dirt. He came home each summer to manage the hay crop. He always had to hire a hay helper for the summer. On a bulletin board at the OSU agriculture department, Cox posted a summer job opportunity: “Get a tan, build your muscles, see the country, get away from the rat race.” A personable, martial arts aficionado Clay Williams took the bait. The business soon required more than a summer helper.

In the late 1970s, at the height of his hay-hauling days, Cox had four trucks and up to 15 employees. He paid them three to five cents a bale, and typically they processed 800 bales a day but as many as 2,000. The hay truck was the critical employee.

He recently sold the original Chevy. Now, his go-to truck is a 1956 Ford F-600 once owned by a farmer named Earl Clayton. Cox lusted for that truck for more than a decade, but Earl would not let it go. It was parked behind Earl’s barn, full of manure and with a cracked windshield. When Earl retired, he sold it to a horse rancher.

Cox tracked the owner down 15 years ago and bought the hay truck for $750 cash and $450 worth of hay. Hauling the Ford down the two-lane highway to Leonard—knowing it had only 33,000 miles on it, but mindful that it badly needed paint, tires, brakes, and insurance—he mused that the number of hayfields may have diminished but the old hay truck had survived. But it has been assaulted.

Once, after a hot day of hauling hay, the door handle jammed. Cox moved to the passenger side and tried to kick the door open. He dented the metal door panel, entrapping the lowered window. The door did not open. Unconsciously, he reached for the handle, gave it a gentle lift, and the door swung open. Years later, he uses a vice-grip to crank open the window. The rusted grip hangs forlornly. The wipers still do not wipe. “Who needs them?” he said. “If it is raining, we’re not hauling hay anyway.”

By 1992, the round baler made it possible for a single worker to cut and bale hay into huge round bales, leaving them in the field with no need for barn storage and the requisite hay hauler.

Over the years the business dynamics of hauling hay have changed dramatically. By 1992, the round baler made it possible for a single worker to cut and bale hay into huge round bales, leaving them in the field with no need for barn storage and the requisite hay hauler. Square bales are stored in barns to prevent up to 50 percent decomposition from rain. Round bales can be left in the field due to their baling process. “Rain penetrates [a round bale] only a small way into the hay, so the loss is considerably less,” Cox explained.

The price tag of $35,000 for the round baler requires at least 1,000 acres of hay, Cox said. The round baler put an end to the days of custom hauling for ranches and large farms. Today, the old homestead is Cox’s only source of hay. No longer needing a fleet of trucks and hands, he’s back to his original staffing of one truck and one helper.

Over the years, Cox has gone through four chiropractors and five massage therapists. “Only by the grace of God,” he said, “am I still doing it.” He was born again in 1986 after reading a windshield pamphlet. He took the literature to his room in the farmhouse he shared with his mother, poring over the sinner’s prayer. Cox confessed, “God was speaking right to me.” A baptism followed and he changed his carousing and drinking ways.

With fewer and fewer people needing him to haul their hay, Cox repairs oil well pumpjacks part time. Joyce is a computer systems analyst for American Electric Power. They raise okra, watermelons, new potatoes, and tomatoes to sell during the summer at the Broken Arrow farmer’s market for extra revenue.

Cox staves off “driving into an asphalt jungle and sitting in a chair all day for my occupation,” and remains romantic about turning grasses into square bales. “Why should I stay with it?” he said with a laugh. “I doubt it’s for the money!”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 5. March 1, 2013.

Be sure to check out a video on Kelly Cox from This Land.