by Bob Kidwell of Montgomery, MI
No matter what else there is to be said about hay, there are two outstanding characteristics. It takes up a lot of space and it is heavy; both factors to consider when planning to move, store, or feed it.
Baled hay requires about 400 cubic feet to store a ton. A draft horse can easily eat 5000 pounds or about 1000 cubic feet of hay in a year, even if pasture is available in the summer. This would fill a 12 foot by 12 foot room seven feet deep. Imagine a horse munching through all that hay in one winter. Simply chewing it is a monumental task.
Weight of hay is also a consideration as anyone who has stacked square bales on a wagon behind a baler knows. Confronted with these big volumes of heavy stuff we recently converted most of our hay making from square bales to round bales. This greatly reduced the labor to get the hay bales, but left us with new questions about hay handling and feeding.
We wanted to do the hay handling with horses as much as possible, so began the search for the best options. First the hay had to be moved from the fields to storage. We found by attending “Horse Progress Days” over several years that there were many ways to move one or possibly two round bales at a time with horses. Assuming we’d need about 300 round bales moved a distance of up to a mile, up hills, through gates, etc.; it became obvious that even two at a time was too slow during the busy summer season. Fortunately we came across a trailer called the Bale Master designed to self load and move six bales at a time using horses. It can be pulled by a forecart or even a tractor or pickup, if a farm happens to be horse deficient. It utilizes an electric winch that pulls a cable attached to a grappling hook to roll the bales onto the spikes along the trailer edge. The grappling hook then stays with its bale to hold it on the trailer during transport, while the cable is moved to the next hook and the whole thing is moved to the next bale. This may sound confusing, and admittedly we’ve never been able to elicit more than blank stares trying to explain this to people who haven’t actually seen the Bale Master. Hopefully the pictures will help. Bales are loaded from back to front, alternating sides to distribute weight evenly, and surprisingly almost never fall off. Unloading requires pulling the hooks out of the bales, allowing them to roll off. The 2005 price of the Bale Master was about $2000. It has performed flawlessly, though it does take some skill to get it into position next to the bale.
Our bales are 4’ by 4’ and weigh about 550 pounds. We’ve found two horses adequate for the load on our hills. One person is also adequate, but it is much faster, easier and more fun with two. Five foot diameter bales can be carried on the Bale Master as well. With over 3000 pounds of hay on the trailer a cart with brakes is necessary. The design puts over 1000 pounds on the cart drawbar, providing enough braking traction. You do need horses that can be trusted to stand when asked or loading will be frustrating.
Most of our hay is fed to sheep on their winter pasture so we decided to store the hay right in the field where it will be fed. This has the positives of not tying up barn space, not having to move bales long distances in bad winter weather or icy conditions, and makes feeding convenient. On the down side, there is hay quality loss to weathering, and the sisal twine rots on the bottoms of the bales. We fenced the sheep out of the bale area with two strands of portable electric fence. So far this storage/feeding method is working well.
Probably the most difficult decision has been how to feed the bales: In feeders or unrolled on the ground. We talked to people who loved and hated each method. We planned to plow the pasture field in the spring and dreaded the thought of trying to plow under the tangled masses of wasted hay and manure that accumulate around feeders. We also wanted to distribute the manure evenly over a 7 acre field. There was the cost of round bale feeders to consider. Our winters here in southern Michigan can be cold and snowy or warm and muddy. Muddy seems to be the norm lately. Would most of the unrolled hay get trampled into the mud?
We decided to go with unrolling, and as it turned out this winter had more than its share of mud. We found, though, that the solid bluegrass sod in the feeding field was sufficient to keep us, the horses, and the sheep from disappearing into the mire. The sheep don’t waste too much hay either, as long as we don’t over feed them. This method might not work for less than fifty sheep, because you can’t give less than one bale at a time.
Unrolling the bales should work for cattle as well. We started the feeding with two yearling steers in with our 150 ewes, but they thought the team of horses entering the field with the hay looked like fun playmates. At last, animals near their own size! Might even be brown steers. After enduring the frustration of trying to protect the horses from the playful advances of two running, bouncing, moronic steers for a few weeks, we decided we’d had enough. The steers were moved into the barn to eat their hay indoors. Everyone is happier now. These steers were bottle fed as little calves and have no fear of people. Cattle raised on their mothers might not be such a problem.
The question of how to unroll the round bales required a lot of thought. It still is requiring thought. The first attempt was a home made unroller. Now, we heard of someone who just pushed a sharpened broom handle through his bales and pulled it with ropes. Someone else said we could simply roll them down a hill. We haven’t tried rolling them down a hill, (except accidentally when releasing them from the round baler at the wrong time) but have found they don’t always unroll when you want, such as when they’re covered with ice. Imagine a 550 pound, frozen projectile barreling down a steep hill toward the unsuspected fence at the bottom. This method was rejected.
The broom handle idea seemed to have more promise, so we built a u-shaped metal yoke that attached to both ends of a steel rod driven through the center of the bale. This is then pulled by the forecart. There proved to be a couple problems with this method. First, getting the one inch rod through the bale required a sledge hammer. Second, because the twine rotted off the bottom of the bales, we had little control over when the unrolling started. Eventually we tied a piece of twine around the ends of the bale to hold it together while it was rolled out of the storage area. Sometimes this worked. This unroller was made of scrap metal plus $20 in new steel, and at least let us find out if unrolling could work for us.
We needed something that could pick up the bale, move it to the field, set it down, and unroll it. I had seen and photographed such a device at Horse Progress Days a few years ago. I tried to contact the manufacturer, but got no response, so I took the picture to a local Amish welding shop where they can make most anything out of steel. Using the picture and information on the size and weight of our bales, they designed and built one for me. It does the job, but has a few bugs to be worked out yet.
Basically, as can be seen in the pictures, it is a two wheel trailer attached to a forecart. It has arms with short spears at the ends that swing out so it can be backed around the bale. The spears are then pushed into the bale ends. A hand operated winch raises the bale off the ground for transport. Lowering the bale allows it to unroll. We think this is the answer to the unrolling question.
Switching from square to round bales seems an easy, obvious way to change farming methods when something happens suddenly, like you get old, for instance. It is less labor making hay now, but for us it required several other changes at the same time.
Because our barns are not designed to feed round bales inside we had to stop lambing in winter so the sheep could stay out on pasture. They’ll lamb outside in May. This forced other changes like shearing dates and lamb marketing strategies.
Happily we will have much less use for the manure spreader with the sheep doing the spreading for us. A downside is some unfenced fields will miss out on their manure.
We do have a good market for small square bales to people with a few riding horses, and we may continue to bale some hay in this form. There is a market for round bales, but usually at a much lower price per pound of hay. We don’t want to sell too much soil fertility at too low a price. A lot of organic matter can leave the farm in a hurry in round bales.
The most interesting part of managing a small organic farm is the continuing effort to achieve the balance that allows all the parts to work in harmony with each other and with nature. We know we’ll never achieve perfection, yet the joy is in the striving. This change in hay handling methods is just one small part of a work in progress.