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Balers evolving to make silage and run non-stop

Given the short haying windows, Adam Verner sees growth potential for wet hay and silage balers. But manufacturers still face challenges around speed, bale density and cost

The earliest round balers were amazing but frustrating machines. During forage season, I would exhibit a semi-permanent crick in the neck combined with a disturbing vocabulary of profanities. Constant fear of a plugged pickup, a twisted belt or a roller bearing displaying the telltale signs of smoke before the fire plagued my working days.

These balers carried the general shape of today’s models but beyond that, had limited similarities. My specific nemesis sported a metal shell wrapped with varying lengths of belts due to excessive re-lacing and repair, a basic pickup, a singular heavy-duty drive chain and an ample supply of much sought-after shear pins.

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Today’s models are unrecognizable with extreme versions having their own cab, dolly wheels and top-loading hoppers continuously filled by a moving forage harvester.

Moving from dry to wet

Adam Verner, owner and operator of Elite Ag in Leesburg, Georgia, has grown to be a forage harvesting equipment expert during his agricultural career. A fifth-generation mixed farmer and seedstock producer, he’s been a fixture in the commercial hay business for forty years. Elite Ag sells a range of equipment for farmers and cattle producers.

Verner sees a distinct trend in the North American haying industry moving to the use of baleage (relatively high-moisture content forage) due to shorter production windows and added feed values. With the constricted timelines of harvesting, Verner believes there is considerable growth potential in wet hay and silage balers.

“The logical step is to go from the dry hay baler, whether it be yellow, red or green, capable of baling wet for a few years, then switching over to a silage-designed machine with suitably positioned rollers and belts, and finally moving to a processing unit with knives.”

Verner admits many still don’t know how to work with high-moisture hay. “I’m constantly educating people who don’t really know what baleage is and how to put it up to benefit their animals. We have a long way to go on the wet hay side of things but we’re definitely moving in that direction.”

In the early 2000s, Verner and his father were curious about the differences in balers and tested their traditional dry hay machine against a German-designed silage baler with knives. They ran the two side-by-side in the same field using the same size of bale and wrap.

“We did everything we could to make it the same. In the end, there was an average of 250 more pounds of hay in the silage bales. That’s a lot of pounds. And we got it by only using half the knives available because we were afraid our cows would make a mess of even shorter-cut material.”

Tests also showed significantly higher relative forage quality (RFQ — estimated digestibility based on filling capacity) and relative feed value (RFV — potential digestible dry matter intake) measurements on the silage bales.

“Guess what — the beef cows ate it better, milked better and their calves grew better. Plus, because of the extra weight, we used less net wrap, and cut our hauling by getting more weight on the trucks. And it ensiled better with reduced spoilage.”

Options, durability, speed and density

To meet needs, manufacturers are creating a wealth of accessories, attachments and features. Systems include upgraded drive chains and sprockets, heavier gearboxes and output shafts and cut-out load limits on clutches to allow higher torque. Pickups may now be controlled independently. Automatic lube stations supply grease and oil directly to where it’s needed. Ejection bars and moisture systems can be built in and plastic wrappers could be added in combination units.

Verner says manufacturers are focused on machine durability. “It’s a big thing with so many moving parts. The longevity is not where it needs to be, especially when used in wetter hay.”

He says raising speed in the field and maintaining consistent hay quality are two additional objectives for manufacturers. Some units are designed to reach 12 miles per hour with increased pickup and throat capacity for dry hay and corn materials. But more speed lowers desired density capabilities. Tight, dense bales equal reduced pH and sugar contents — indicators of proper fermentation and prolonged forage stability.

“The problem with speed is anti-density,” said Verner. “The faster you go, the looser the bales become. The more revolutions in the chamber, the tighter they get. It’s a challenge to create more force but still go faster.”

Further confusing the issue, higher density also means less time in the field with more material per bale and lower fuel and transport costs.

Going non-stop

To counteract this problem, manufacturers have dedicated considerable energy toward non-stop machines and self-propelled units. Verner likes the idea of self-propelled models, but sees the market being limited, strictly because of cost. But a spin-off benefit is these units drive automation by bringing improved computerization into play. Tractor implement management (TIM) software systems are becoming more dominant and are designed to provide a universal link between balers and tractors.

Equipped non-stop balers sense when wrapping should begin, slow the machine during the tie-off sequence and resume speed when complete. They automatically open and close the chamber, either ejecting the bale or moving it rearward to a combination automatic wrapper to complete the plastic wrap cycle, all without stopping.

The abilities and features of the modern balers are rapidly changing but the goal remains the same — quality material wrapped quicker with fewer inputs, preferably without neck cricks and roller-bearing fires interrupting the process. The choices are almost unlimited, emphasizing the importance of operators evaluating and assessing realistic needs when purchasing or upgrading.

— Bruce Derksen lives, works and writes in Lacombe, Alberta. He has 30 years of experience as a hands-on participant in numerous branches of the western Canadian livestock industry.

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Bruce Derksen lives, works and writes in Lacombe, Alta. He has 30 years of experience as a hands-on participant in numerous branches of the Western Canadian livestock industry.

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