Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How hay bales are made

Grass doesn't grow in the winter.  So to make sure that the animals are eating good stuff, I purchase and stack 20 to 30 tons of hay each year.  For the last several years I've been buying bales from a farm about a mile south of mine and picking it out of the field when it's ready to go.
The basic wisdom is that the greener the hay the more nutrition the bale has.  I don't know if that's true or not, but I like green bales myself.   Here's the basic steps in producing hay. 
The first thing you do is check the weather.  You want a string of 3-5 days of hot, sunny weather, and in western Washington that's pretty hard to come by.  So you sit and wait and watch and hope that the weather window will come at the same time that the grass is ready to be cut.  There's some details I'm cutting out here about what stage of growth for the grass, but you get the idea.  Once the weather is in line, you cut down the grass and let it dry in the field. 
There is some technology that I will talk about here.  This grass was both cut down and then squished between two rollers (a mower-conditioner, vs just a mower).  This crimping of the grass stems allows a more complete drying of the stalks and results in a better quality hay.  A second step in baling is to cut the hay into lengths of 1' or less.  This is so when the animals eat it they don't waste as much because less will hang out the sides of their mouths. 
The cutting portion of this operation is mostly accomplished with disc cutters.  that round disk spins very fast, and the little metal knives stick out and cut the grass.  There's a string of these across the front of the mower.  Some mowers are 8' wide, some are 20, all depends on the size of your tractor and how fast you want to cover acreage. 
The next step is either to ted the grass (fluff it up so that the bottom of the grass dries as well as the top) or rake it. 
Raking is the process of forming rows of concentrated hay.  The baler will run down these rows to produce bales. 

Here the baler is producing small square bales, which I prefer for most of my hay because it's easier to handle a 60lb bale, but there are all sorts of other bale options.  Notice that the operator is looking back at the baler while the tractor moves forward.  Typically when you're baling you're fiddling with the baler now and then.  The yellow container to the right on the baler is a spray that is applied to the bales to retard mold.  It's an organic acid that smells a bit like vinegar.
 Once the baler has passed by it looks like the field has been vacuumed clean.  You can see the raked grass at the top of the photo, the bales in the foreground. 
The pictures here are from a 90 acre farm; the farmer will produce about 50 bales per acre, so he'll produce something like 4500 bales this time, the first cutting.  First cutting hay is usually coarser and has more stem mass than second or third cutting.  A second or third cutting will produce fewer bales per acre, but be leafier and is considered higher quality. 

Another popular option in this area are large round bales.  They weigh about 800lbs each, and are preferred by people who are feeding cows.  You can feed a lot of cows by dropping one of these big bales into a feeder.
Here's another farmers round bale.  This baler makes a much tighter bale than the one pictured before... well, that's when it works. 
...well, it does when it works.  Here the farmer has stopped baling and is fiddling with the baler.  This is more common than you'd think.  To take the pictures for this entry I looked at 4 of the farms on my island and each of them was baling, and every one of them was fiddling with their baler at some point during the 20 minutes I watched. 
and we end with a picture of one of the final consumers of the hay:  the ruminant squad.  Here they're still working on the lush summer grass, but after the first frost they'll be on the hay diet. 


Bruce King said...

I supply hay to the pigs mostly for beddng, though they do eat a bit of it. The ruminants eat mostly hay. I usually buy a couple of big square bales of alfalfa to supplement everyones diet. the price of alfalfa has been falling the last couple of years, and as it goes down I use more of it in my operation.

Dean Smith said...

Where I grew up, we hitched a wagon on behind the baler and one or two guys rode on the wagon and stacked the bales on it as they came off the baler. It was pretty hard work, and was somewhat dangerous. My job was raking and towing the loaded wagons up to the barn. I remember once there was a thunderstorm coming and 7 loaded bale wagons in the field. I was told to run the tractor around the field and make a train of the hay wagons. That was an impossible job (think about it). I ended up with a 'train' of just two wagons and as I was racing out of the field to the barn in the driving rain, I clipped the last wagon on the concrete gate post and dumped most of the load. Boy did I catch hell! Storing wet hay is a good way to burn down your barn.

Anonymous said...

When you say big square alfalfa do you mean bigger than 69#?

Bruce King said...

A small square bale weighs between 60 and 90lbs A big square bale weighs hundreds of pounds as much as 800lbs. I like the big square bales because they're easier for me to stack and handle, but the round bales are pretty popular.

You'll sometimes see different bale sizes referred to as a "two string bale" or "three string bale". the more strings the larger the bale.

Mandy Hayes said...

I was advised that the hay bales use a special adhesive/ glue but at this time it is hard to find and only produces in Houston, TX. What is this "special" product needed for these bales, and can't twine be used instead of the adhesive?