Baling Out

Last month, I wrote about how my family and I spent plenty of time out in the field and up in the haymow producing and putting away thousands of small square bales each year. On our farm, they were 18 inches wide, 14 inches high, and 36 inches long and weighed around 40 pounds each.

Those are Dad’s measurements; Mom said they’re underestimated.

“They were more like seven feet long and weighed about 100 pounds each,” she said.

While we kept making those thousands of square bales every summer, we also graduated to other sizes and formats of hay accumulation. In 1977, six-foot-diameter round bales became popular. We had Bob Swenson, a custom operator with a Vermeer round baler, come to the farm to make 100 bales. The next year, Dad purchased a John Deere 510 round baler.

“Those bales were much easier to handle and store,” he said, “and we were having trouble finding help to fill the barn with square bales.”

When Dad first talked back then about making big, round bales, I had visions of rolling them in from the field, since I had no idea that they weighed around 1,500 pounds apiece. Obviously, transportation took a different strategy. Dad would make the bales, and I would haul them to the buildings with our 2640 utility tractor, using a custom-made fork on the three-point hitch and another on the front loader. Our forks had a long prong that penetrated the center of each bale; two smaller prongs, set lower, made a triangle when poked into the bale, securing it for transport. When I was hauling, I often imagined myself as a knight of old, leveling his lance at an evil dragon. (Farm work can lead to a rich fantasy life.) As part of my job, the goal was to haul in before nightfall all the bales produced during the day. That sometimes made for long days. If I didn’t finish by bedtime, I would be right back at it at first light the next morning.

In the mid-1980s, we traded for a John Deere 530 round baler. I was always amused that it bore the same model number as our last 2-cylinder tractor. The 510 could produce a lopsided bale, if you weren’t careful, as you moved the baler back and forth across the windrow to put more hay on each side of the cylindrical chamber. The 530 made more uniformly shaped round bales. It had a computerized monitor system that would tell the operator how each side of the bale was forming in the chamber and when it was time to stop to wrap it in twine and kick it out.

In 1991, when we traded the 530 for a 535 (which added a netting-wrap function to the baler), Mom and Dad were on vacation when it was delivered. It was left to me to help set up the new baler and bale a couple of fields of hay. I had the hay raked and ready when the baler arrived. But, try as we might, the dealer’s mechanic, Bill Busch, and I couldn’t get the netting rollers to engage and wrap the bale. (It turned out that there was a faulty sensor in the assembly.)

In addition to baling our own hay, we did custom work for several neighbors. When I was old enough, Dad sent me on some of those jobs. One memorable challenge came from a neighbor who had raked a windrow right on the edge of a drop-off in his field. When I dropped the wheel of the round baler off that several-inch ledge, the pickup jammed. I had to get off, pull the thistle-filled material out of the pickup, and then turn the entire assembly in reverse with a large wrench to “break” it loose.

(You may have noticed that there’s been no mention here of Mom’s doing anything with the round bales. Even though she was our primary square-bale producer—and Dad tried to talk her into learning to run the round baler—she had no interest in doing so.)

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Dad said he had trouble getting the hay to dry properly for either regular square bales or round bales. A neighbor’s baler made large square bales that were three feet by three feet by six feet long that weighed approximately 600 to 750 pounds. Those were then wrapped in airtight plastic to make haylage bales. It was also possible to make large square bales that were eight feet long and dryer and that weighed about 800 pounds. We didn’t penetrate those large, square bales with a pronged fork; we moved them with a hydraulic assembly on the tractor’s loader that had an arm on each side that “hugged” the bale.

“Depending on the alfalfa-to-grass ratio in each bale, some could approach 1,000 pounds,” Dad said. “We had success with these bales, since some of our hayfields had more weeds in them that year and were hard to dry. By making haylage, that material fermented, making a more palatable meal for our animals. The only thing they wouldn’t eat in them was sourdock.”

Many readers must have memories and anecdotes about handling each type of bale. Please share them in the comments below. (By the way, does anyone have tales of filling a barn with loose hay? What challenges did you face?)

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