Choosing a Hay Baler for Your Compact Tractor
Have you ever wished that you could use your compact tractor to bale hay? Well guess what? Now, with balers fitted to fit smaller equipment, you can. A compact tractor paired with the perfect hay baler can improve a small farm’s productivity and sustainability. We sat down with Pat Goodwin, founder and owner of Tractor Tool’s Direct–a company built around debunking the “big tractor haymaking myth”–to learn more about compact hay balers and how to choose just the right baler for your small farm.
Pat spent several years searching for the best equipment for his own small farm. He’s always preferred compact tractors for their improved maneuverability, fuel sipping characteristics, and of course, lower cost. Unfortunately, he had a lot of trouble finding good equipment for making hay with his small tractors. It seemed like most manufacturers and equipment dealers focused on big farm tractors and the equipment that fits them.
Then one day while researching, he found out about compact hay balers. In Italy, farms are smaller and hillier and require the use of smaller equipment. These “mini balers” could be operated with tractors as small as 16 horsepower, and were exceptionally well engineered and built. He liked them so much, he didn’t just buy one, he decided to start a business selling them to others.
“When it comes to choosing a baler, there are a multitude of choices. Baling with a compact tractor used to be considered impossible, but things have changed. There are some great options available now that will help you get high quality hay into your barn, without having to rely on others or purchase a gas-guzzling monster of a tractor,” Pat said.
The following guidelines will help you determine which baler is the best choice for your tractor and your operation:
Mini round balers
The word is spreading about mini round roto-balers. Many small farmers are finding that they are the best choice for getting their hay in the barn. The mini round baler works on the same principle as its bigger cousin, rolling the hay inside a chamber until it reaches a certain size, and then wrapping the bale with either twine or net and ejecting it out the rear of the machine.
These balers can be run with ease in tight and even oddly-shaped areas like fenced-in pastures and around building and ponds. They are especially handy for baling in small temporarily fenced paddocks used for rotational grazing. Since they are so light weight, they can also be pulled safely on hillsides and slopes. This makes these balers a perfect choice for many small farms. You can potentially add acreage for hay into your farm management plan that big equipment can’t reach – increasing production and decreasing mowing or brush-hogging.
The size of a mini round bale is roughly the same as the small square bales most people are used to seeing. They generally weigh 40-55 pounds and can be easily lifted by one person. Bales of this size are perfect for feeding smaller livestock like goats and sheep. Even though they are round, the bales are easy to stack and the spaces left between allow for ventilation between bales once in the barn.
The mini round roto-baler can be connected to the tractor either by the 3-point hitch or by a drawbar. Though most brands only connect by 3-point hitch, there are two baler models that connect to the tractor’s drawbar: the Abbriata Roto-Baler and the Caeb MP550. This is an important option to have in a roto-baler. Not only is connection much easier, but drawbar connection does not require you to lift the baler off the ground when turning corners. Many tractors are not capable of lifting something this heavy, so turning corners could be a problem with a 3-point mounted baler.
Both the Abbriata and the Caeb also have the option of running the baler out to the side of the tractor. This feature gives you improved visibility of the baler’s pickup, and also prevents hay from getting hung up on the underside of your tractor. This is extremely helpful with larger windrows and/or short tractors.
Another feature to look for with a mini round roto-baler is whether it has gathering wheels on the sides of the pickup. Because of their diminutive size, their actual pickup width is only about 30 inches. This requires you to either make very small windrows, or miss a lot of hay. With gathering wheels, the effective pickup width is increased by half again as much. That means you can rake a bigger windrow, reducing the number of passes through the field with both your rake and your baler.
Most mini round roto-balers also are available with the option of wrapping the bale in netting rather than string. There are a few advantages to net wrap. First, the binding process is much faster with net wrap, since the bale only has to turn 2 to 3 times rather than 8 to 12 in order to be wrapped. That means you are stopped for a shorter period of time while the bale is being wrapped, increasing production rate by 25% or more.
Second, net wrap provides excellent protection to the bale against rain. Studies have shown that net wrap bales left outdoors for extended periods still only have spoilage in the first inch of the bale. This means the urgency of getting the bales out of the field and in the barn is reduced. Third, if the bales will be handled multiple times, net wrap will hold the bale together better, with less material loss.
Another option is twine wrap. The main advantage of twine wrap is economy. These balers use standard twine which is readily available at most farm stores and is fairly inexpensive. The cost per bale with twine is around 10 cents versus around 30 cents for net wrap. One other advantage of twine wrap is for the farmer who wants to leave the bales in the field for grazing animals to eat through the winter. This used to be a common practice for farmers who baled with the Allis-Chalmers Roto-Baler. The bales from the last baling of the season would be left spread across the field. Animals grazing in the field could nudge the bales to roll them over, exposing fresh hay. Natural sisal twine was used which rotted off the bale over time, allowing the grazing animals to get to the interior of the bale.
Figure 1 shows several criteria that might be used to decide between net and string wrap:
Advantages of the mini round baler are:
- Very low horsepower requirement. A mini round baler needs only around 15 horsepower to operate.
- Lighter weight. Round balers weigh much less than square balers. This means they are safer to operate on hills, and tractors of any size can easily pull them.
- Simpler design. Round balers are simpler machines than square balers, with fewer adjustments required and fewer parts to break
- Smoother operation. Square balers “kick” up to 90 times per minute. On a small tractor this constant jerking motion can be somewhat fatiguing.
- Small size. A mini round baler will actually fit in the back of a pickup truck. In storage it will take up about a quarter as much space as a square baler.
- Better weather resistance. If there is any chance the bales may stay in the field for any extended period of time, mini round bales will hold up much better to rain and dew. Net wrap provides an even higher level of protection.
The first machines that baled hay baled square bales. Though first a stationary machine, the square baler eventually evolved in the late 1930’s into the machine we know today. Since the International Harvester square baler was mass-produced in the 1940’s, the design of the square baler has changed very little. The basic concept is still the same, with tines that pick up the loose hay and feed it into a chamber, where a plunger moves back and forth, compressing the hay into a rectangular chute. From there twine or wire is wrapped around the compressed hay and periodically tied off and cut, and the process continues. The tying mechanism of a baler is a wonder to behold, even 70+ years after its invention.
Square balers can work quickly and continuously, dropping a new bale in the field as often as every 10 seconds or less. It only takes one afternoon to have as many as 1000 bales or more spread out across a hay field. Getting the bales in the barn becomes a high priority at this point. Square bales left in the field overnight will tend to soak up dew and moisture from the ground. Getting them dry enough to stack in the barn the next day can take time. For every hour that square bales sit in the field you are also risking a rain storm. Square bales that get rained on can be completely ruined. There is nothing more disheartening than having a field full of ruined square bales, that now weigh 100 pounds each, and knowing you have to get them off the field and piled somewhere.
Most standard square balers on the market require 35 horsepower at your tractor’s PTO, and a minimum tractor weight of around 3000 pounds. Those requirements will usually send you into the size range of a utility tractor or the largest compact utility tractors on the market. Abbriata square balers, however, can be operated with tractors of as little as 16 PTO horsepower and weighing as little as 2000 pounds. On flat ground, even lighter weight tractors are sufficient.
Abbriata square balers are available in two sizes. The smaller of the two, the Mini, has a total width of only 66 inches, making it the narrowest baler in the compact square baler class. The narrow width is great if you have gates or trees through which you need to navigate. Requiring only 17 PTO horsepower, almost any tractor can power it. It has a pickup width of 42 inches, which is wide enough for most windrows made by smaller hay rakes.
The Abbriata Super has the widest pickup width in the compact baler class at a full 53 inches. That means you can make larger windrows, resulting in fewer trips through the field and more consistent bale density. And the Super can bale up to 400 bales per hour, on par with domestic square balers on the market.
A square baler has the following advantages:
- High baling capacity. Square balers never have to stop to wrap or tie a bale, so are able to bale a maximum tonnage in a given period of time.
- Easy-to-handle bales. Square bales are the easiest shape to stack, and with an average weight of around 40 pounds for an Abbriata square bale, are easy to lift and move around.
- Resale. If you are selling your hay, most customers will prefer the familiar shape and easy-feeding flakes of a square bale.
Figure 2 summarizes the different criteria for choosing the right baler for your small tractor operation:
For more information about baling hay or to learn more about other products for your compact tractor, check out www.tractortoolsdirect.com.