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How to Bale Hay

Sep 17, 2023Sep 17, 2023

Owners of small rural acreages often find themselves with limited options when it comes to acquiring hay. Buying hay on the market can be expensive, and the quality may not always be up to your standards. Even if you have a hayfield on your property, if you don't own baling equipment, your only option is to find someone to bale the hay for you.

Having someone bale hay for you can be expensive; at the very least, it’ll result in splitting a percentage of the crop in lieu of payment, which can leave you short of your hay needs. If you use fewer than 100 bales per year, it's probably more economical to buy hay from a reputable seller. If your needs surpass 100 bales, however, or if you want to guarantee quality, it's worth considering baling your own hay. Even if your acreage is limited, affordable hay baling equipment options exist, allowing you to make the most of small-scale hay production.

Regardless of the yield per year, there are four basic components to producing hay: cutting, tedding, raking, and baling.

Plant growth determines when it's time to cut hay. (The smell of fresh-cut hay in summer always triggers a lot of good memories for me.) Common equipment used for cutting hay includes sickle mowers, rotary disc mowers, and drum mowers.

The sickle mower was one of the earliest mechanical mowers developed, and variations are still manufactured today. It consists of a 5-to-7-foot-long bar with cutters along the bar edge. The rotary disc mower is the most common type of mower, but it's predominately used with higher-horsepower tractors on larger acreages. Disc mowers can operate at higher speeds through thick hay, and they have the ability to windrow the cut material. Drum mowers are particularly suited to smaller properties, because they don't require a lot of horsepower or hydraulics to operate. They’re also rugged and durable, even when cutting rough or uneven fields.

Once hay has been cut, it takes about three days of consistent drying weather for it to properly cure. Letting hay dry thoroughly ensures it doesn't get baled with a high moisture content, which can cause spoilage. Tedding is the process of using an implement to lift or fluff up the hay to promote thorough drying. Tedding moves the bottom of the windrow up to the top to maximize air circulation. If you live in a dry climate, you may be able to skip tedding. In areas with high moisture and damp weather conditions, tedding is more common.

Raking is the final step in the drying process. It pulls the hay into windrows for baling. Several types of rakes are available, with the wheel rake and the rotary rake being the most popular.

Wheel rakes have been around for a long time, and they come in many configurations and sizes. They don't require hydraulics or power takeoff (PTO) to operate, and they tend to be cheaper and require less horsepower than some of the other rake options.

While wheel rakes rely on ground speed for windrowing, rotary rakes operate via PTO. Rotary rakes are able to handle wet or heavy hay, and they make fluffy, uniform windrows. On the other hand, they require a higher-horsepower tractor due to the weight and hydraulics needed to operate them, and they’re more expensive than wheel rakes, which makes them a poor fit for small acreage.

Baling is the final step in processing hay. You have two options when it comes to the type of bale produced: square bales or round bales. Each bale type has its own benefits, depending on your needs and the type of livestock you’re feeding.

Square bales are beneficial for people with fewer animals, as they tend to be easier to handle and store. Horse owners often like square bales, because they’re easier to feed in stalls and there's less waste. To make square bales, hay is lifted into the reel and then packed into a bale chamber alongside the baler. Then, twine is wrapped around the bale before it's ejected from the baler. Square bales weigh 40 to 60 pounds.

Round bales often appeal to larger farming operations, because they provide more hay than square bales, are more effective at shedding water, and they’re easier to move to remote pastures or feedlots. To make round bales, hay is pulled into the baler and then wound or rolled until it reaches a preset size, at which time twine or netting is wrapped around it to maintain its shape. (Netting adds another level of moisture protection, which can be beneficial if you have limited inside storage space, or if field storage is your only option.) Then, the bale is dropped from the rear of the baler and can be moved by a tractor with a bale spear or grapple. Round bales can range in size from 800 pounds to 1,500 pounds or more.

You have many options when it comes to selecting baling implements, but I want to focus on equipment that's optimal for owners of small hayfields. In recent years, small-scale implements have been developed that are affordable, and the hay produced can pay for the investment when you compare it with purchased hay. You may have a small field or pasture (less than 5 acres), or a couple of fields that add up to around 20 acres. In most cases, if you have 40 or more acres and plan to actively bale hay, you’ll need equipment to meet larger acreage demands. Here are some suggestions for hay-making equipment suited to small acreage.

Tractors: Compact or Sub-Compact. In the not-too-distant past, owners of small tractors had few options for baling equipment. The compact and sub-compact tractor market, with engines ranging from 15 to 35 horsepower, has grown dramatically in recent years. With the popularity of these tractors, equipment manufacturers have designed attachments to match their capabilities. Haymaking implements are now available that can be matched with sub-compact tractors rated at 15 horsepower.

Although horsepower needs for larger haying implements can fall into the sub-compact tractor range, the weight and width of smaller tractors may not be adequate to safely handle the equipment. Dangerous rollover accidents can occur if a tractor doesn't meet the equipment manufacturer's specifications for safe operation.

Mowers. Compact and sub-compact tractors can efficiently operate both a sickle mower and a drum mower. As mentioned earlier, the sickle mower requires little horsepower to operate, and there are many older models available for a reasonable price. On the other hand, sickle mowers can be costly to repair, and they clog easily. Expect to pay anywhere from $900 for older equipment to $4,000 for new models made for sub-compact and compact tractors.

Drum mowers are a great choice for smaller tractors, as they also don't require a lot of horsepower to operate. They’re dependable, can cut fast, and are quicker to repair because they have fewer moving parts than a sickle mower. Because of their relatively new entry into the market, there aren't as many used drum mowers available, but it's worth checking to see if there's anything for sale in your area. Costs will vary for new drum mowers, but prices generally range from $3,000 to $6,500.

Tedders and Rakes. I’ve lumped tedders and rakes into the same category, because they basically perform the same job: turning and drying cut hay in windrows. Because of this, most small properties can get by using just a rake. Used wheel rakes are readily available, and can be quite affordable. Even new rakes designed for sub-compact and compact tractors can be purchased for $600 to $2,300. If you live in a wet climate, consider investing in a tedder, since they speed the drying process by flipping cut hay completely over.

Balers. Two choices are available for sub-compact and compact tractors on small properties: small square balers and mini round balers. As mentioned previously, sub-compact and compact tractors don't have the necessary horsepower or weight to operate standard square or round balers, but the "mini" balers can operate on tractors with 15 horsepower.

Although mini square balers are an option, they can be difficult to find, and their cost is prohibitive to small-scale hay operations. In my opinion, mini round balers are the only viable and affordable option for owners of sub-compact or compact tractors.

Mini round balers are a growing market in the United States, and they can be found at many distributors across the country. They’re lightweight, which makes them safer and easier to operate on slopes or in confined pastures and fields. A mini round baler works the same as a large round baler.

The size of bale produced by the mini round baler varies, but you can set your desired size in the 40-to-60-pound range. The ability to control the bale size gives you the option of moving the bales by hand, instead of having to use a bale spear. Also, the smaller size allows you to feed the entire bale or parts of the bale in stalls or small feedlots. Expect to pay anywhere from $3,500 to $7,000 for a new mini round baler. You can also find used models online.

Whether or not you choose to bale your own hay comes down to both economic and personal decisions. Are you willing to purchase new or used implements and hope for a positive return on your investment over time? Or, do other factors, such as independence from market prices, quality of hay, and a stable supply make the investment a good choice for you? As the implement market responds to the growing needs of smaller-acreage owners operating compact tractors, it's nice to know you have options when it comes to making your own hay.

A regular Grit contributor, Tim Nephew lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat.

sickle mower rotary disc mower Drum mowers Wheel rakes rotary rakes Square bales Round bales Tractors: Compact or Sub-Compact. Mowers. Tedders and Rakes. Balers.