Our family has been making hay for over 20 years, and I’m here to explain the process to you. Whether you’re growing hay already, have a few acres of land and think it might be a good idea, or are just interested in the process, read on to see exactly how hay is baled, from a field of crop to a shed full of bales.
First of all, you’ll need some machinery to perform each step in the hay baling process. You can hire or buy any of this machinery from your local agricultural machinery dealer, or you can hire a subcontractor to do the job for you. Here are the key pieces of machinery you’ll need:
First of all: a tractor. Depending on what size bales you’re planning on producing, you’ll need a tractor powerful enough to drive all the attachments listed below. Ask your tractor dealer for help to make sure you purchase one with enough grunt, and also be reliable.
- Bale Presser
Another piece of machinery you’ll need is a bale loader. If you produce large bales, you’ll need a front-end load or similar to handle the bales, but if you produce small bales, an optional piece of machinery is a small-bale loader. These can be self-propelled or powered by a tractor, and are by no means necessary. It’s quite possible to handle small bales by hand, or with a mechanical elevator.
The first step in baling hay is mowing. You’ll need a mower to cut your crop and leave it in a neat windrow in the field. If you’re baling lucerne (alfalfa) or another flowering crop which requires a longer time to cure before it can be baled, a mower conditioner is recommended to accelerate this curing process. The faster your crop cures, the less likely it will be exposed to sun bleach or rain damage.
Once the hay has been cut, and before it can be baled, it needs time to cure. Curing is the process of drying the hay, so that the moisture content drops low enough that the hay can be safely baled. Too much moisture in a hay bale (more than 16% moisture, but lower for large bales) can lead to mouldy bales, and even hay fires if the hay is in a shed. However, if the moisture drops too low (less than about 10%), the quality of the hay will suffer, and the end result will be a dusty, colourless, scratchy bale that is hard to sell, either to customers or to animals.
The curing time will depend on a number of things, the type of crop you’re baling, the time of year, the temperature and humidity in the region, and the size of the bale. It may need anywhere between a few hours to several weeks to cure enough to press. Using the example of lucerne hay (alfalfa to some) that has been mowed and conditioned, up to a week in the summer months will usually be long enough for the hay to cure.
To test the moisture content of the hay, either purchase a hand-held moisture meter for several hundred dollars, or estimate it by cranking a large handful of loose hay in your hands to see how ‘tough’ it is. If the hay disintegrates right away, the hay might be too dry, but if the hay is mostly intact after 10, 15, 20 cranks, it still needs more time to cure.
When the hay has cured, the moisture content will be low enough to allow baling. First, though, the hay needs to be raked up off the ground to allow the bottom of the windrow to fully cure, and make it easier for the bale presser to pick up off the ground. Raking should be a quick and painless process, and with a good tractor and rake it can be done at ground speeds of up to 15km/hr (10mph). At this speed the raking process will begin to damage the hay if you have a leafy crop like lucerne.
When the hay is raked and the windrow has cured, it can be pressed into bales. There are several options for baling; some typical ones are large square bales, large round bales, or small square bales. The size of the bale you choose, and the quality of your machinery will affect how quickly this process can be done, but typically small square bales can be produced at up to 6 bales per minute, while large square and large round bales will take closer to one minute each to produce.
The type of bale you choose will also affect how long the hay must be cured before it can be baled. Large bales must have very low moisture contents (less than 12%), while small bales can be pressed at up to 16% moisture content. Chemical mould suppressants can be sprayed onto the windrow directly before pressing to increase the maximum moisture content significantly (be sure to refer to the directions that come with the chemical for specific moisture ranges).
Now that the bales are pressed they can be stacked in the field or carted elsewhere, to an outdoor stack or to a shed. Large bales will require a loader to stack onto each other or a truck, but small bales can be stacked by hand onto a truck (possibly with the help of an elevator when the load becomes too high, or stacked with a mechanical bale loader to reduce manual labour.
Handling & storage
In low-rainfall areas, small hay bales may survive months or a year stacked outside, but for best results, stack them indoors in a shed. Large bales are better able to resist the element when stacked outside, but again, for best results, and especially for high-quality hay, a shed is the best option.
Fertilizer – while this guide only covers the baling process, fertilizers are also important to promote crop growth.
Feed tests – if you plan to sell your hay, customers may ask for the nutritional information of your hay. Having a feed test done on your hay details the protein, energy content, and other nutritional info.
Herbicides & pesticides – again, not part of the baling process, but if your crop isn’t performing the way you’d like it to, it might be worth hiring an agronomist who’ll recommend some herbicides and pesticides.
Mould suppressants – I mentioned mould suppressant chemicals earlier in the article, there are many types available, and they’re available from your local agricultural shop.
And that’s the bare bones of baling hay. I hope you’ve enjoyed the article, please email me or comment if you have any questions or any similar guides you’d like to see.