Wednesday is the day when the weekly Fort Atkinson Hay Auction is held in beautiful downtown Fort Atkinson, Iowa. Forage producers from near and far bring in loads of the leafy green stuff looking for anxious buyers with hungry livestock. As The Hay Dude, it is my responsibility to attend the auction as regularly as possible to rid myself of excess hay supplies…and to meet as many characters as possible.

Every Wednesday I attend seems to be entertaining, and this day was no exception. The entertainment began while I was waiting for the auction to start. I looked off to one side and saw a wagonload of small square bales being pulled to the auction by a pickup. This was nothing out of the ordinary…until the driver turned the corner and part of his load decided to keep going straight. He splattered about 30 bales, or one-third of the entire load, all over the street corner.

Okay, Rule No. 1 of hay sales is: Make sure your load is secure. Rule No. 2 is: Tighten it down some more because you can never be too careful. So the lucky soul who brought this particular load to town had the privilege of not only loading all the bales at home, but also loading part of them AGAIN when he got to town.

Once the auction was over, I discovered the destination where I would be headed with my load of 10 large round bales of hay. The buyer looked familiar, but I didn’t know his name. I’d seen him at the auction almost every week, but he had never bought any of my hay. All I knew was that he was from Hawkeye, Iowa, and that was NOT on the way home from Fort to Cresco. It was pretty much in the opposite direction of home.

The buyers and sellers congregated in the office to collect their checks and/or write their checks for the hay bought and sold that day. I collected my check and waited for my buyer to finish his paperwork. Then it was time to hit the road for Hawkeye. My buyer told me that he had purchased two other loads of hay that day and he would be hooking the two wagons together and pulling them back to Hawkeye behind his pickup. He gave me directions to his farm and told me to head out and not wait around for him. He would get home just a couple minutes after I got there.

I began the 16-mile journey. Within two or three miles after leaving Fort, I came upon a familiar sight. Lo and behold, it was the load of hay that had been splattered all over the intersection in downtown Fort Atkinson. It had been reloaded and purchased by someone south of Fort Atkinson. However, it had NOT been secured any better than it was the first time. After following it for a couple miles, I noticed that the square load was taking on somewhat of a trapezoid shape. It seemed to be leaning toward the shoulder, just like it had on its way into Fort. At first, all I could see was the load in front of me. Pretty soon I could see a little of the roof of the truck pulling it. After a couple more miles, I could make out the driver’s side mirror of the truck. I figured once I could see the driver’s head it wouldn’t be long before the whole load would fall off into the ditch.

No such luck. Just a mile or two before getting to Hawkeye, the driver and his accomplice pulled up to a stop sign and jumped out of the truck. They motioned me to go around them, but I waited to see what would happen. These two guys then proceeded to have what could only be described as a Chinese fire drill for hay. They climbed on top of the wagon and began stacking and restacking nearly the entire load! In a flash, they had it squared up and road-ready once again. In less than two minutes, they did the work of an Indy pit crew. They drove off and all I could see once again was the load of hay in front of me. There was no sign of a truck pulling it.

I arrived at my destination and didn’t find my buyer behind me. After waiting for a few minutes, he finally showed up. His two loads of smaller round bales looked kind of odd, though. Nearly all round bales get stacked like pop cans lying horizontally. This load had a lot of those, but it also had one bale in the back lying vertically. The buyer parked his truck and came over to help me unload my load. He apologized for taking so long to get there. He looked back at his load, stopped for a second, and then scratched his head.

“Seven, eight, nine…HUH! I woulda sworn I bought 10 bales. No, I KNOW I bought 10 bales! I musta lost one somewhere. There was this one hill and the wagons kinda started to whip back and forth….”

Alright, class, let’s review Rules No. 1 and 2 of hay sales: SECURE THE LOAD AND DOUBLE CHECK IT!!! Violators will be humiliated according to their degree of carelessness.

We unloaded my load and then it was time for me to head home. There was a much better route to get back to Cresco than the route I just took to get to Hawkeye, but I HAD TO go back through Fort just to find the missing bale. I kept watching the shoulder of the road for signs of a chaff trail heading into a ditch. I know from experience that this is what you look for in this situation. Alas, there was no chaff trail to be found. Just as I got back to St. Lucas and its steep blacktop on the south side of town, I saw a sign. It was an actual sign — a road sign that was leaning badly. It looked as though it had been steam rolled — as though a large package of forage had rolled over it. It was right at the edge of a huge, cavernous ditch on the way into town.

I drove around downtown St. Lucas and looked for a stray bale at the bottom of the ditch but didn’t find it. If a bale had gone over the edge of the cliff in St. Lucas, it kept right on rolling and didn’t stop until it got to West Union.

Just two miles outside of Fort, I found what I was looking for. There in the ditch was a round bale of hay looking like it had seen its better days. The sad part was that this particular stretch of road was almost perfectly straight and flat — virtually unheard of in Winneshiek County. How you could lose a bale there is beyond me. Even The Hay Dude on his worst day could hold his load together on that kind of terrain.

This is one that the team of bale physicists at ISU will be working on for ages.

So remember, if it’s Wednesday and it’s Winneshiek County, come on over to Fort and join in the fun! Who knew that hungry ruminants could be the source of so much entertainment?

The Hay Dude