This week marked the annual Hay & Forage Expo where people can go to learn about all kinds of hay equipment. As a bit of a hay guy myself, I've been to several of these over the years. The youngster who was conducting surveys of showgoers just inside the gate was more than a little surprised when I gave him a number on just how many of them I've been to over the years when he asked. The show was in central Iowa this year at the semi-permanent site of the Farm Progress Show a few minutes west of Ames. Some years it gets rotated to actual working farms in the tri-state area of northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin.
The ideal Hay & Forage Expo site has around 160 acres of alfalfa in either a single field or relatively contiguous smaller fields. That allows show organizers to put all of the equipment displays, field demonstration areas and parking within walking distance of one another. That's also the part that knocks me out of contention as a host for the event. Although, I remember being at one several years ago where the giant choppers were growling their way through a bunch of rock-filled windrows of hay in a somewhat distant field. You could hear all the stones hitting knives and blower pipes as the self-propelled choppers went across the demonstration field. There was some extreme wincing on the faces of all the factory service reps standing nearby, because they knew what their task was going to be in another hour or so when the demo was done: major knife readjustment and sharpening!
I remember telling Trusty Sidekick Lorne at the time, "Heck, we could have one of these shows here in our nine different fields and not even have to pick rock to do it!"
What we can't do is level out all of the ground where we grow hay. Well, we can't do it in a realistically affordable manner. While this may be the Super Bowl of the forage industry, it does not come with all of the revenue that the NFL brings to their little dog and pony show.
Hay expo demonstrations
Besides looking at all of the equipment displays and talking to company representatives and academic specialists, there are also a few demonstrations at the Hay Expo, too. Each company can run its particular machine through the field in standing hay and then let customers see how it compares to competitive models in the same conditions. The part of this that I have always enjoyed the most is the Dr. Temple Grandin animal handling part. Show organizers now have to put rope lines up to keep attendees from getting too close to the machines as they work. They'll run the machine in long, straight lines across the field. To get a better look at the machine, and to grab a representative handful of its output to truly see what kind of job it does, every farmer will get in as close as possible to get it before someone else does. We are competitive animals by nature.
Temple always talks about using the animal's "flight zone" to handle them. You can sense how close they will let you get before they will naturally move away. You adjust your position accordingly to get them to move. A flight zone can range from a few inches on tame animals to maybe a hundred yards on really flighty animals. The rope line at the Hay Expo is sort of a standard flight zone adjuster. In its absence, we'd probably see a lot of people literally mowed down at the show!
Personally, I'm looking forward to the day when the show gets sponsored by one of those electronic dog shock collar manufacturers. Team that up with the right GPS equipment to move the border where people can be and you'd have yourself a fun show to watch.
Once the hay is cut, then there is a demonstration of tedding, raking, baling and sometimes chopping if it's held at a dairy farm. That's pretty much where the demonstration part of the show ends. I noticed at this week's show that that's also where the fun ends. "Bale Transport" is not one of the events. Where is the challenge in moving bales from a flat, square field? Better yet, where is the challenge in making hay in a flat, square field?
I've posted video before of a sport I like to call round bale bowling. Watch it here:
It's best played when you either have rained-on hay you're baling or lower-quality stuff that's not the market-topping candy you need to keep looking pristine. This has not been a great year for making pristine dry hay. There has been plenty of humidity and very few stretches of several days with no rain. We've cut some fields by doing the outside rounds and then doing the rest of the field a couple days later once the outside rounds were baled. One of them fell under just the right cloud where we got enough rain on that field that we couldn't bale it in a timely fashion. By the time it was fit to go, the outside rounds had significant regrowth and made for sort of a lush green picture frame around the rest of the field.
This picture frame sits in what is commonly known as The Schoolhouse field. I own it now, but it used to have a one-room country school on it when we first acquired it about 40 years ago. When the elementary school in nearby Ridgeway, Iowa, (population ~ 300) was being redone with construction work in about 1959 and 1960, this one-room school was used as part of the system. Kids who lived nearby went there instead of the regular building in Ridgeway. We're right on the border between Cresco and Ridgeway, so we always had a choice to go to either one for elementary school. Since The Chairman Emeritus grew up not far from Ridgeway, and they always had a great teaching staff, we went to Ridgeway. The neighbor kids who lived less than a quarter mile away on the other side went to Cresco.
There's a bit of an age spread between Guy No. 1 and me. When people ask me how old he is, I always say, "Well, he's really old. He went to a one-room country school." I usually leave out the part about it being just for kindergarten while the new building was being built in Ridgeway.
There's a nice stream that runs partway through The Schoolhouse field. One of the soil conservation guys who was here years ago looked at it and said it was cold enough and consistent enough in its supply that it could probably support trout. It also contains a hill. More than one, actually, but one is a bit bigger than the rest. One of my late landlords always told me that the railroad guys said that this particular hill was the highest point on the rail line between the end east of here and somewhere in south-central Minnesota. Our elevation is probably why I'd always get killer TV reception back in the days of the rooftop antenna.
Bale launching pad
That hill also makes for a good bale launching pad. You will notice I didn't say round bale launching pad. You can get square bales, both large and small, to generate some momentum there, too. Trust me. What with the shortage of really good dry hay this year, I wasn't looking to do any round bale bowling. In fact, I was on the hill on the other side of the stream when my math problem happened. That side of the field isn't Hay-Expo-flat-and-boring, but it's not near what the big one is.
One of the options introduced on round balers years ago is something called the push bar. When your bale is made and ready to be dumped from the baler, you needed to back up and open the gate. That allowed the bale to drop onto the ground. You then moved forward and closed the gate before getting back to your baling. Hay tends to intertwine with itself, so if you drive forward even slightly, you will just keep feeding hay into the baler as it puts either twine or net wrap on the finished bale. Dump that baby out and then back up to close the door and you've probably just put a big dent in your rear door. Not good.
Add the push bar, though, and your bale will automatically be shoved away from the baler when it's made. You can stay parked and not have to do the hokey-pokey as you make a bale. The thing is, in real-world conditions where fields aren't Hay-Expo-quality boring and flat, that push bar may be viewed as more of a launch mechanism. Yeah, yeah, not exactly a catapult (a Guy can dream!), but not exactly a pair of giant bale tongs, either.
As I finished up the last couple of windrows in The Schoolhouse on first-crop, I backed the baler up so that the push bar didn't launch a bale down the hill. The geometry and trigonometry all made sense to me as I hit the lever to raise the rear door and strategically place my bale. My bale started its departure and then made a sudden turn. Instead of heading straight south to line up with the other bales I'd just made successfully, it suddenly went all Willie Mosconi on me and headed straight for the stream! Torn net wrap I can live with on a bale. It doesn't look great, but it's not the end of the world. Seeing as how this hasn't been the driest spring ever, I figured I didn't just land this bale in a dry river bed. I probably just parked it in a bathtub.
It's much easier to make baleage by baling the hay at a higher moisture percentage than dry hay rather than trying to add the extra water to it after the fact. Now-retired Fort Atkinson Hay Auction owner, Bob Humpal, always used to give us the same speech every year when hay came in early in the season and was too wet: "Guys, if the cow needs more water, it's a whole lot easier for her to walk over to the tank and get a drink than to get it from the bale!"
Since I was almost done with the field, I figured I'd wait to handle the mishap. Three or four more bales and I'd be ready to head in and get my rescue equipment.
Sure enough, geometry came back and kicked my butt again. Another bale went Willie Mosconi on me and veered off its compass settings and landed in the stream. I got my last bales made and headed back to the field on the four-wheeler for some CSI work. That's when it got interesting.
My rogue bales had landed almost perfectly in the small ditch where the stream runs. The width of the ditch was just wide enough to stop them in their tracks. The ditch was also juuuuust wide enough that I couldn't cross it at an angle with the skid loader or the tractor to get myself squared up with the bale to spear it and leave. I was standing there doing all kinds of geometry and trigonometry in my head, trying to figure out which way would get me in and out without axle snappage. Perpendicular appeared to be the angle of choice.
Then came the next problem. Do I go bale spear or pallet forks on this? I could spear the bale with the single skid loader spear, but I'd have to hit it absolutely dead center on the round side to keep it from rotating and falling off as I lifted. (Don't ask how I know that. File it under "experience.") If I used the tractor with double spears, I probably would either shred the net wrap and potentially bust the bale or bust a spear. Pallet forks would maybe get me under the bale and allow me to raise it up without doing any damage, but I wasn't about to go to the trouble of strapping the bale to something to keep it from rolling forward as I lifted and then falling off the front. This ditch wasn't on flat ground. We don't host Hay Expos. I'd be leaning into it as I lifted. Again, don't ask how I know that wouldn't work. Not that I've dumped a lot of stuff off the front of pallet forks on a slope or anything, but this wasn't rookie stuff for me. Pallet forks without straps would get me into the Lather-Rinse-Repeat death spiral and then I'd have a pile of wet chaff that would act as a beaver dam to create my own trout pond.
Come to think of it, that actually has some upside. Fishing sounded really good about then, but there would be a lot of development and time required. I wasn't looking to fish at that exact moment. I was looking to get my disaster out of view of the traffic going by a few yards away on the highway.
I decided to go the skid loader single spear route. Drive up, aim for the center, lift up and go. No straps, no ropes, no chains, no problem.
Did I mention no witnesses?
Nope. Sherill wanted to watch. She also took pictures once I described how this should potentially work . . . successfully.
Brain surgery requires precision. I have more than a little experience with that. Very few neurosurgeons also bale hay on the side, or after hours, to relieve stress. Perhaps they should. Then maybe they would develop some targeting device for finding the center of a bale. It could be handy.
I didn't hit the center of the bale both times. One was pretty decent and didn't show a lot of combat wounds. The other one will not be placed on the front of the load as the marquis. It wasn't what you'd call "literature-quality."
This is why they have Hay Expos in boring country sometimes. No hills, no problems.
No fun, either, but maybe that's just me.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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P.S. Even though he's been on the job more than a year, I still haven't met my new editor, Willie Vogt. He was taking pictures at the Hay & Forage Expo this past week. Quiet guy that I am, I didn't flail my arms wildly at him to get his attention and introduce myself. He was pretty focused on getting photos. I waited for the right moment to walk up and say, "Hey, boss, Guy No. 2. Nice to meet you." That didn't happen. He's the one with the backpack in the photo. I looked in my phone and didn't have his cell phone number stored so I could text him. Probably would have been a bit creepy to get one from some stranger standing 30 feet away, don't you think?