Home / Blog / Custom baling generates unique experiences too!

Custom baling generates unique experiences too!

Sep 21, 2023Sep 21, 2023

Tim Stevens stands in front of the baler which is part of the caravan he brings for custom baling jobs. He said a new baler will cost in the neighborhood of $175,000.

Thanks to their relentless ambitions, American farmers also occasionally have remarkable adventures. Case in point is my Northwood, Iowa farmer friend Tom Stevens, who a few years back got into the custom hay baling service as a means of generating extra income for his Worth County farm.

Stevens has had his share of unexpected adventures too … like this past season when he and his ‘baling crew’ traveled over 500 miles into northern Minnesota for a most unusual, but rewarding, baling expedition. We recently had a chance to settle into a couple of well-used chairs and chat about that experience.

To start off, I asked Stevens how long he has been operating at his Worth County location? "I started farming with my dad when I was just a kid," he said. (His grandfather, L.G. Stevens and brother Alan were both prominent hog producers). "My wife Amber and I moved to this farm in 2000. We’re just a couple miles southeast of Northwood on Pheasant Avenue South." The Stevens family includes daughter Skylar, age 28 and son Joshua, age 17.)

Stevens reminisced on how the whole custom baling operation came into being. "We bought a couple of big square balers from a local guy and decided we’d like to take them out and see how much custom work we might be able to generate," he said. "I mentioned to him that I’d like to take these rigs out west or up north to see about getting into custom baling business."

Constantly running a baler places stress on the equipment most farmers won't experience. "We’re running Massey Ferguson (Heston 2270 high densiity balers)" Stevens explained. "My dealer talked with someone in Kansas who had access to farmers looking for custom hay balers. Pretty soon I had a guy calling me from northern Minnesota. Ended up doing about 8,000 bales up there last season in the Warroad and Baudette, Minn, area … only about 10 miles from Lake of the Woods. I never even thought there was farmland up there; but we ended up with 24 baling customers in our first expedition into the north country."

Most of those bales were loaded onto semis and went west to Wyoming and Montana to be ground up for cattle feedlots. "These were square bales," said Stevens, "3 by 4 by 8-feet — because they fit so well on these flatbed semi trailers. We averaged about 1,175-pounds per bale. We were baling straw from harvested bluegrass seed. They grow lots of bluegrass seed up there, so we were baling the straw after combining. After that, we went into cereal rye and then into wheat. The wheat straw was by far the easiest … most density and just good baling."

Stevens said last year the rate for his service was $30 a ton. With price increases on fuel and other expenses, he knows he will have to increase baling prices; but hasn't yet decided the new rates. "We have two balers; plus a large bale stacker which we pull with another tractor. We load each bale and stack them at the edge of the field."

"Today a new baler costs about $175,000; the Mill Stacker — made in Fruitland, Idaho — was about $125,000. I also have a roundbaler, McHale brand name, made in Ireland. I’ve run Vermeer balers made in Pella, Iowa.

"We usually have a three-man crew and ideally a fourth guy to shuffle us around and help out as needed," Stevens went on to say. "Finding good help is an increasing problem. We’ve got good guys now. I like to start with young high school kids and work with them until they’re ready to out and do their own thing."

The crew spent nearly five weeks in northern Minnesota last season and required accommodations for their home away from home. "We purchased a camper unit," Stevens explained. "Before we left, my good wife packed us up pretty well with clothes, food and other provisions. If we didn't want to eat from the camper, we’d just pull out and drive to a restaurant. My wife stayed at the farm attending to things — plus we had some local baling around the Northwood area also. We do around 4,000 acres down here."

What are some of the common snags involved in custom baling? "About like any baler," Stevens shrugged, "the pickups — but you always got to pay attention to the knotters. These balers have six knotters (six strings) and they put on two knots per string; so each bale has 12 knots. A guy really has to learn how to work on knotters. Ninety percent of the time we can fix our own knotter problems and our local guy is very adept if needed. Even when baling up north, he’d give us directions over the cell phone on how to remedy our problems. Daniel Sholwalter of Clearview Ag, north of Saint Ansgar is the guy and he's a gem."

Stevens had a unique experience getting his stack loader home last season. This bale stacker is too big to fit on his flatbed trailer, so he hitches it behind his tractor which cruises at about 30 miles per hour down the highway. It was about 200 miles into the trip home between Belgrade and Brooten, Minn. when a rear tire blew out at 2:45 in the morning. "I sat around for a while, then got on the internet access. Of course, nobody would answer their phone until 7:30. Nobody stopped along the highway either. I would gladly have taken a lift into town if someone had stopped. It took about 12 hours — from 2:45 a.m. until about 2:45 p.m. — until I was equipped with two new tires (both rear wheels) and ready to roll again. It was about 560 miles so didn't get home until about 4 p.m. Monday."

At 52 years old, Stevens is pleased with the business he has developed and plans to continue as long as body and mind prevail. When we spoke, he was making plans to head north for this year's baling expedition. "They’re about 30 days behind up there, so it's probably a late August start for our crew this season," Stevens said. "Lots of 40-foot headers on combines up in the wheat country, so these big rigs leave a big enough swath for our balers too. Down here, it looks like we’re going to have a great crop again this season. I suspect we may be getting calls from North Dakota and South Dakota farmers soon too. In good weather, with both rigs we can do upwards of 250 acres in a day … and that amounts to nearly 800 bales."

Custom baling aside, Stevens has his own spread to operate — about 700 acres. "I run about 100 acres alfalfa hay and the other 600 acres on a corn/soybean rotation. I raised hogs for years; but when that financial squeeze came on is when I started this custom hay baling idea. I always like to have some livestock, so hired a local guy to do some baling of my alfalfa to feed my cows. When I saw his charges for custom hay baling, which was round bales, that's when I thought maybe I should look at the custom hay baling business too and it just sort of expanded from there."

Stevens said he felt the farm economy is pretty good right now; but the general economy is "tanking" and the farm economy usually follows that same pattern. "We’ve got to make what we can when we can and trust the good Lord will favor us accordingly," he said. "But I’m discontent with the growing amount of farm land moving in the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program). Sure, one can talk the benefits of conservation; but it keeps lessening farming opportunities for younger guys wanting to make a start at farming. USDA data shows farming acres across America keep diminishing — getting bigger, but fewer isn't the answer for American agriculture!"

As I got up to leave, Stevens said he treasures the friendships he has made with farmers in northern Minnesota. "They are resilient," he stated. "They learn when to bend and make adjustments as needed. Just a good bunch of guys up there. We really got good rapport with the farmers up there. A lot of the fun of going up there was meeting these farmers and viewing their farm life.

Sorry, there are no recent results for popular videos.

Sorry, there are no recent results for popular commented articles.