Round bales at 200 miles per hour

Round bales at 200 miles per hour

The best part of 2013 is going to be seeing it in the rear-view mirror on the 1st of January 2014. It was not a great year, weather-wise. Memorable, yes, but not in a good way. We started with a winter not short on cold or snow. Then we moved into a spring season that dragged on forever without ever warming up much. That was accompanied by endless deluges of rain. Planting did not move along at anywhere close to a normal pace. This was a historically wet year; the kind that old guys refer to as "one like I've never seen in my ___ years at this."

Balage 2013

Our intended acreage did not get planted in a timely fashion. Less than a third of it went into the ground in the normal time frame, and some of that was pushing the calendar pretty hard. Thanks to crop insurance, though, we didn't give up and let the land sit idle. Instead, we seeded a cover crop of annual ryegrass and red clover where corn would normally be planted. That enabled us to maintain soil erosion control with a planted crop while still growing something of potential value. Letting the ground sit idle for a year can sometimes create what is referred to as "fallow syndrome," a situation where yield drops substantially the year after a field doesn't grow anything.

We made a lot of those planting decisions in the first part of June. I spent some time on the phone one afternoon talking to various seed people in Minnesota to see what their inventory was for potential cover crops and what their opinion was of the various crop species and combinations. My goal was to make hay from the Prevented Planting (PP) acres once the deadline of November 1 passed. Federal rules prevent the producer from doing anything with his acres, harvest-wise, until after November 1. Seeing as how we have both equipment and experience making hay, this wasn't going to be a totally new enterprise for us like it would be for some of our strictly-row-crop brethren. So we planted forage crops in a big way. Hundreds of acres of them. That meant potentially hundreds of acres of PP hay to make later on.  

There would be one big difference for us, though, compared to our usual hay-making endeavors. That would be the calendar. Any idiot can make hay in July. (In fact, many do!) But when you can't start doing it until November 1, things get different in a hurry. We live far enough north that precipitation can start changing forms in a hurry in November. Sure, you may see a few days in the 60's and 70's, but you shouldn't be surprised by several days in the 10's, 20's and 30's, either. Ever toss some laundry in your dryer and set it on LOW and then been surprised how fast it dried? I didn't think so. Hay doesn't like cool and damp either.

The summer of 2011 presented a weather challenge that made me change my plans for hay that year. We went with balage instead of dry hay and ended up glad that we made that decision. Balage is made just like regular hay, but at a higher moisture level. Dry hay normally needs to be somewhere between 12 and 20% moisture to store well. Balage can be anywhere from 25 to 70% moisture. It needs to be wrapped tightly in a package that keeps air out of the bales. That enables fermentation to take place, just like in a silo if the forage had been chopped as silage instead.

Balage is typically wrapped with white plastic. Lots of white plastic. Here is a link to a video of that process from 2011.

You can make balage with a round baler or a square baler. My preference was for round bales, mainly because we have our own round baler and there was no advantage to hiring someone to make big square bales for me. I got in touch with the guy who had wrapped my balage in 2011 and made sure he was willing to take on my project this fall. We weren't talking about a hundred bales here. It may be closer to a thousand by the time we were done. You don't make that call the day before you're ready to go and expect immediate service!

The Wrapper, Dr. Hay, was willing to take on the challenge. He told me to let him know the day before we'd be ready to wrap and he'd set up a time to be there.

That's when the logistics game got fun. All I had to do was coordinate the guy running the mower to get the crop cut, the guy running the rake to get the windrows raked together to speed the baling process, the guy running the baler to actually make the bales, and then the staff necessary to move all of those freshly-made bales from the field to the yard in 24 hours or less after they were made so that they could be wrapped before spoiling.

Once that hay is cut and then raked and finally baled, the next challenge is to get those bales moved home so that The Wrapper, Dr. Hay, can do his magic. That creates a whole different group of story problems. What we have found to work the best is to put one guy in a loader tractor and have him stage bales as they are made. He drives around the field and picks up bales one at a time with the loader and then places them in a single row with either 11 or 12 bales in it. That row needs to have the bales spaced about three feet apart. Sure, it looks neater and more space-efficient if they're right next to one another, but this is a chess game we're playing.

Thinking ahead at least one or two steps pays big dividends.

Staging bales for loading

If you're the guy running the loader tractor who has to load those assembled bales onto a trailer, do some math. Your bales are about five feet wide and five feet high. The trailer is 8'6" wide and 26' long. Your tractor is closer to 8' wide. If your 5' bales are stacked next to one another, you have to drive into your bale, then back up and move over before you can drive forward to place the bale on the trailer before you do the lather-rinse-repeat spiral of death. If you keep them three feet apart, you can drive into the bale and put it right onto the trailer in one forward motion. Get a trailer driver who can move it ahead the proper amount as you load and that process goes by in a big hurry with no stress. (My Uncle Dean should drive every trailer, if it were up to me. Best guy in that job EVER. When we'd put him in the Ranch Hand, he'd park exactly where he should every time and then he'd back up for the last bale to be placed on the flatbed behind the cab so the loader operator didn't have to do some twelve-point turn to move that far.) With the right guy on the loader and the trailer, we could get a load ready and moving in five minutes or so. The round baler was kicking out a bale in as little as every 63 seconds in some fields, so we needed to keep the whole process moving, literally. This wasn't a handful of loads. This was 100 or 125 loads. Shaving three minutes from the load time adds up. Adding four minutes makes it feel like an eternity, too.   

Then there is the story problem when you get back to the yard. Where do you park all of the bales until they are handed over to The Wrapper, Dr. Hay, for his artistry? A willy-nilly, hodge-podge assembly doesn't work that well when you have a slug of bales to do in short order. A straight line presents another problem. If you have the wrapper at the spot where the bales will be in their final position, you need to figure out how long the line will be when that row is done. Most of our rows were going to be somewhere around 50 to 60 bales long. At 5' per bale, that means it's about 250 or 300 feet from the beginning of the row to the other end. The Wrapper, Dr. Hay, can wrap a bale in about 45 to 60 seconds. So I need to park my bales in such a way that I can get at them easily and transfer them from the stack to the wrapper in less than 45 seconds. If you put 50 bales in a row parallel to where they will be wrapped, and you start at the same end as the wrapper, you'll be hauling a bunch of bales almost the full length of the row (in both directions) before you're done.

Balage pyramid

Solution? Think about The Bangles. Walk like an Egyptian. Put your bales in a pyramid of sorts! That allows you to store bales going horizontally and vertically, and it still enables you to store a bunch of them close by, ahead of time, without being in the way of the wrapper. The only limits on space are how high you can reach to get bales off the pyramid when it's time to feed the wrapper.

Put that pyramid at the proper angle and you can even simplify the parking and unloading process for your trailer staff as they come into the bale staging area. Parking at an angle to the pile allows the guy in the skid loader to make more general forward and back motions with his machine than if the trailer is perpendicular to the pile.

I learned that when I delivered hay to a horse customer years ago. It was just late enough in the winter that his yard was still soft. My trailer had both his hay and my skid loader on it. (Yes, class, that's called full service. You can bill for that accordingly.) I took his bales off the trailer and made general turns with the skid loader instead of 180 and 360-degree doughnuts like most skid loader operators do. His yard looked untouched when I was done. He said his dad usually left a bunch of ruts and berms all over the place when running the skid loader to unload hay if he wasn't around to do it himself.

Thoughtfulness usually pays. Sometimes it pays retail. 

NASA complained about the glare on the International Space Station

The other challenge comes when all the processes overlap or expand. There would be times where the mower was cutting hay, someone was raking and another guy was baling. Meanwhile, we'd get loaders loading bales and hauling them back to the yard one to four miles away. The Wrapper, Dr. Hay, would be busy at his machine as someone in the skid loader would be feeding him bales at the same time as more loads were being delivered to the yard. That's when operator ability comes into play. You'd need to get the bales unloaded as fast as possible without ever having the wrapper waiting to be fed. It got to the point where I'd have a trailer pull in and I'd kind of speed-unload him and take about every third or fourth bale from the 11 or 12-bale load to the wrapper to keep him busy. That kept the flow of trailers reasonable enough so that no one was waiting around.

Spare time is the worst. Thanks, Mom.  

By the time we were done making all of our balage (and we blew past 1,000 bales well before we finished), we'd gotten pretty good at the whole process. Not to the point where we wanted to do it on a custom basis, but enough that we didn't mind moving bales. In fact, one of my cousins got in touch before we finished and wondered if we could bale some cornstalks for him at another farm. His dad had some health issues this fall, so I knew they were going to be pressed for time to get it all done themselves. The weather and the schedule worked out in such a way that the only time I had available to rake and bale his stalks was on Thanksgiving Day. I got done raking in time to be about a half hour or more late for dinner. Then I went back and baled in the afternoon and evening. The next day, we gathered part of our bale entourage and proceeded to move 125 bales about three and a half miles in almost exactly two hours. That's 437.5 bale-miles in two hours. It sounds better when you think of it as round bales at 200 miles per hour.

Might want to run that math concept past someone in a blue car with lights and a badge. I bet he has a threshold I shouldn't cross without a significant fee.

The best news to report from this entire adventure is that there were no incidents involving bales being where they shouldn't be. We moved around 1600 bales and never lost one on the road. The bad news is that I was so busy most of the time that I never had a chance to take many pictures. Perhaps more fun will develop if and when I market this balage.    

Of course, we could probably also go back in time and reflect on the wisdom of then-customer and now-employee, Woodrow: At the time, he said he had “checked around and nobody moves bales like Jeff Ryan.”

There is that. After all, a guy needs a hobby. I'm just looking to expand my resume. 

Guy No. 2

Read more from Jeff Ryan, aka Guy No. 2.

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