Scarecrows and Agriculture? Say What?

porch scarecrowFall is in the air. The farmers are out combining their crops in the fields, and fall decorations are set out. Mums, pumpkins, and scarecrows add a festive touch to porch stoops. Scarecrows are now often used as fun fall decorations, but did you know they once served an agricultural purpose?

Origin 

The origin of the scarecrow dates back to the time of the Egyptians. Farmers installed wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets. As birds would enter the field, the farmer would scare them into the net and capture them.

Greek farmers also used scarecrows. In 2,500 B.C., Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrows to look like Priapus, the son of Greek goddess Aphrodite. He was believed to be ugly enough to scare birds away from the vineyards and ensure a good harvest. One hand held a club to scare the birds away, and the other hand held a sickle in hopes of a good harvest.

DCF 1.0Japan had their own version of scarecrows called a kakashis. This scarecrow closely resembled a person. It was dressed in a raincoat and a round straw hat. Farmers added bows and arrows to make the kakashis appear to be more threatening.

Scarecrows were also used in the Middle Ages in Europe. Their original purpose was to england scarecrowfrighten away birds from eating crops in the field. For thousands of years, farmers have tried to keep pests like crows from eating the seeds and plants in their fields. Before scarecrows were around, during the Middle Ages, in England, young boys would walk through the wheat fields making loud noises with wooden clappers to scare the birds away. This was the child’s main job on the farm. They were called bird scarers. When the fields got larger, they started to build wooden stands throughout the field for children to sit in during the day. While they sat in the stand, they would bang pots, make noise, and throw rocks at any animals or birds that attempted to eat their crops.

During the Great Plague, many children died and few were left to stay in the field as bird scarers. Farmers had to be creative and find something else that would deter the pests from the fields. Thus, the scarecrow was born in that region. England scarecrow bodies were made from stuffed sacks of straw and their faces made of gourds. Their bodies were leaned against a pole to scare away birds.

homemade scarecrowMake your own scarecrow

You can make your own scarecrow for your garden at home! It is a simple process. Garden scarecrows must stand tall in the wind, rain, or heat so they need to be made from sturdy materials. Start with a strong frame. A wooden poll, PVC pipe or metal fence post works well. Be creative and use recyclables to create your scarecrow! Old milk jugs work well to create a head for your scarecrow. You can even paint a face on it.

The next step is to to create a body for your scarecrow. Use old clothes to dress the scarecrow. Fill a shirt and old pants with straw, hay, or grass clippings. Tie the ends of the clothing items shut so the filling stays inside. Colorful duct tape can be used to secure the scarecrow to the frame. Attach an old straw hat or wig to make the scarecrow even more life-like.

Attach noise makers to frighten pesky birds away from your crops. Metal objects and reflective products work well to keep birds away.

Just in time for fall celebrations, your new scarecrow can serve two purposes! First it can add to your fall décor, and secondly it can help keep birds from disrupting your crops.

Happy fall!

~Laura

Hey, That’s Not Hay!

759-pumpkins-on-straw-bales-pvI recently saw a sign at a local store advertising hay bales for sale. I looked around and didn’t see any. There were pumpkins, potted mums, gourds, Indian corn, and baled straw— but no hay.  It took everything in me to keep from shouting out, “Hey, that’s not hay! It’s straw.”

I see this mistake often in children’s books, on crafting and decorating blogs, and at craft stores and garden centers. Calling hay straw irritates me. It’s like calling a soccer ball a volleyball or dish soap shampoo. They may look similar at first glance, but they have very different uses.

So, what is the difference between hay and straw?

First, let’s talk about the similarities. Hay and straw are both agriculture products made from plants. They are both cut and formed into big round, big square, or small square bales. But that is where their similarity ends.

The biggest difference between hay and straw is their indented use. To put it simply, hay is food for animals and straw is bedding. The cartoons below illustrate this point well, and should ingrain the difference in your mind forever.

What they are made from is extremely important, too, and explains why each serve a different purpose. Hay is made from the entire plant; leaves, stems, flowers, and sometimes immature seeds. The whole plant has a much greater nutritional value than just dried stems. Hay is cut before the seeds have matured. This keeps valuable nutrients in the stalks and makes a nutrient-rich feed for horses, cattle, and other ruminant animals.

hay in fieldThe nutrient and protein value of hay will vary depending on what plant it is made from and when it is harvested. The fiber content of hay increases as it grows, while the protein content diminishes. Most of the protein in hay is in the leaves, while the stocks are richer in fiber.

Plants grown for hay can be divided into two categories: legumes and grasses. Legumes generally have a higher protein and calcium content than grasses because they have a higher leaves to stalk ratio. Alfalfa and clover are the two most common legumes grown for hay. Grasses used for hay include rye, timothy, orchard, and fescue. Farmers specifically plant these crops to make hay, and usually get about three cuttings of hay off one field per year.

baling-straw-360x238Straw, on the other hand, is a byproduct of cereal grains like wheat, barley, and oats. When the seeds of these crops are harvested the stems, or stalks, are left behind. Most of the stalks’ nutrients were depleted while producing seed, leaving little nutritional value as a feed source. The stalks can, however, be baled and used for straw.

Straw makes a good, inexpensive bedding for livestock. The dry stalks absorb moisture from manure, and provide a soft, clean place for animals to rest. Straw is also commonly used as garden mulch, to help establish new grass, and for outdoor décor.

If you are shopping for straw, be sure to look for golden yellow-brown bales made of stems only.  Hay is light green and include leaves and dried flowers or seed heads.

I highly recommend checking out Lucus County’s Hay Bale Art Contest to see a creative and entertaining use of bales. This annual fall event in south central Iowa includes more than 20 giant sculptures made of bales of all shapes and sizes. My kids and I visited a few years ago, and they are still talking about it.

-Cindy