Choose the Right Hay Baler

Author Photo
By Oscar H. Will Iii | Jul 17, 2020

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A John Deere tractor makes hay with a small-square hay baler.
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The CAEB mini round baler makes a nice round bale of hay.
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The CAEB mini round baler being used by a farmer to make small round bales of hay.
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The SFI MRB 855 is a good fit for subcompact tractors.
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The Vermeer Rebel 5420 is suitable for use with larger compact and most utility tractors.
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The Abbriata M60 mini-square baler works well with compact and subcompact tractors.
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The Abbriata M50 mini-round baler attached to a tractor produces small round bales of hay.

Folks who make hay on a small scale often simply stack the dried forage — usually out of the elements — but piles of loose hay take up a lot of space and are sometimes difficult to feed from without the help of a hay knife and some serious labor. One solution to the issues associated with handling loose hay is to convert the hay into neat and tidy packages called bales. If you have priced new hay balers recently, though, you might be stunned by the size of the investment. However, if you only need relatively few bales, you can get the job done with a small to midsized investment, depending on how many bales you will make in a year and how many acres of hay you intend to put up.

People power

One of the easiest ways to get into baling on a micro scale is to build yourself a stout wooden box, roughly the dimensions of the bales you desire. You can simply position a pair of wires or twines lengthwise in the box, pitch hay into it, press it down with your hands and feet, and tie the bundles together with the twine or wire. This will get you a fairly loose bale, but one that is stackable nonetheless. This process will take several minutes per bale, so if you have hundreds to do, it might not be the best approach. Extending this model one step further would be to add a plunger to the box baler with a sufficiently long handle to help compress the hay, which would create a tighter, heavier and better-shaped bale that would stack more readily. If you build it with a door, you can also more easily remove the bale.

At the time of this writing, I am aware that DR Power is in the prototype stage on a potential production model manual baler that is relatively light, easy to move around, and that allows you to lock the plunger in the compressed mode to facilitate tying a tight bale. If your hay is windrowed and ready, you might be able to make about eight or more 60-pound bales an hour with this tool. Not too bad, if your entire year’s worth of hay amounts to 100 small square bales.

These completely manual options will help you get the baling accomplished for very little investment in equipment — from virtually nothing to a few hundred dollars. You can scythe your standing forage, rake it by hand with a homemade wooden hay rake, and then bale it with your manual baler. The tradeoffs with this approach are time and physical labor. And those tradeoffs limit the total hay acreage you can readily put up in a season. However, if you have need for an acre or less of baled hay to see your sheep through the winter, this is a productive and satisfying way to get it done. Many folks simply choose to purchase bales when their need is so small — I say if you have the land already, why not put it to good use and get in shape at the same time.

Power baling

Assuming you already have a compact or subcompact tractor to help with the hay-making chores around your place, you can consider a mini mechanized baler since you already own the power unit. Using powered hay-making tools will significantly increase the hay acreage you can easily handle — and it will allow you to make more hay faster, which can matter if you live in a region where it is difficult to get several good drying days in a row. Mechanized baling often allows you to get the hay in before that next storm system blows through, dropping an inch of rain along the way. This approach will generally cost you a minimum of about $8,000 for a new, small-scale hay baler to something less than $20,000 depending on the type. Used options would come in substantially lower (see “New or Used” below).

At the micro end of the mechanized baling scale, you have the CAEB mini round hay baler that runs as an attachment on the BCS and Grillo two-wheeled tractors (8- to 11-PTO horsepower). This is a high-quality implement that kicks out 40- to 60-pound round bales that are up to 21 inches in diameter by 23 inches long. These little round bales won’t stack quite as neatly as small square bales, but the baler is very capable and far less expensive than the mini small-square balers, and you don’t need a larger four-wheeled tractor to operate it.

Mini hay balers

Several of the mini hay balers designed to fit smaller lightweight four-wheeled tractors are manufactured in Japan and Italy. Relatively few lines are imported into North America, but several robust and reliable models are readily available — you may need to get comfortable using a dealer that is located several states away from you.

Mini balers that will produce either small round or small square bales are available in sizes that make a good match for many subcompact tractors. For example, the Small Farm Innovations (SFI) MRB 850 is perfect for a subcompact tractor, so long as it has about 15 PTO horsepower minimum and can lift roughly 800 pounds on its 3-point hitch. This little baler and its more automated sibling, the MRB 855, are professional-quality implements designed to drop 2-foot-by-2-foot rolls in your field all day. These bales will weigh from around 40 pounds to more than 60 pounds depending on the forage you are baling and how tightly you pack it.

The Abbriata M50, which is available through GoodwinConcepts, will work similarly with many subcompact tractors to produce 20-inch-diameter-by-27-inch-long bales in weights up to more than 100 pounds depending on the forage, its moisture content, and how tightly you roll it.

If small square bales are in order, SFI offers the THB1070 and THB1071 compact square hay balers. As long as your tractor can safely tow 1,700 pounds and has a minimum of 13 PTO horsepower, you can make up to 300 bales per hour with these machines. The bales will be roughly 12 inches by 16 inches in cross section, and you can make them as short as about a foot tall and as long as about 40 inches. Weights will vary, but you can easily make bales in the 10- to 60-pound range.

Phil Livengood, CEO of SFI, says the THB family of balers is popular among commercial balers in the pine straw industry and the small acreage hay industry. Abriatta’s M60 Mini/S hay baler is also suitable for use with many subcompact tractors, and will produce bales that are 13 inches by 17 inches in cross section, 16 inches to 51 inches long, and up to about 60 pounds in weight. The overall width of this machine is about 5 feet.

In most cases, a new mini square baler will be more expensive than an equivalent or greater capacity round baler.

Compact balers

Step up to a compact tractor with 25 to 45 PTO horsepower and you have even more choices for making hay. You can still utilize the mini balers discussed above, and you can add to them. If you want to make 3-foot-by-3-foot round bales, you can use SFI’s TRB 910 baler to make bales from roughly 250 pounds up to about 500 pounds maximum weight. You’ll probably want a front-end loader on your tractor or a 3-point-hitch-mounted bale spear to move these medium-sized bales around the farm. Abriatta’s M100 baler will produce 39-inch-by-39-inch bales — but the manufacturer recommends about 40 PTO horsepower for optimal results. Massey Ferguson’s MF 1734 machine makes a bale 39 inches wide by up to 52 inches in diameter and weighing around 550 pounds with dry hay — and 30 PTO horsepower should be sufficient to make it all happen.

In addition to the mini square balers described in the previous section, your compact tractor should have no problem powering and pulling the entire family of SFI’s THB series balers, including the wide pickup models THB2070 and THB2071. These balers can handle a wider swath than the THB1070 and THB1071 and will produce up to 300 bales per hour all day with a minimum of 15 horsepower at the PTO. Abriatta’s M60 Super is the wider-pickup equivalent of the M60 and would also be well-suited to compact tractors.

Small standard balers

If your compact tractor offers 40 or more horsepower at the PTO, or you have a larger-framed utility tractor, or even an older model, higher horsepower tractor, you can choose from among most of the balers covered above, as well as some of the conventional equipment from major implement manufacturers. For example, most conventional small-square balers will require a minimum of 35 horsepower at the tractor’s PTO. You will want to be sure that your tractor can handle the actual weight of the baler, particularly if you plan to pull a hay rack behind it.

Most manufacturers still offer large-round balers that will perform well with 40 to 45 PTO horsepower minimum. These machines typically produce bales that are roughly 4 to 5 feet wide by a maximum of 5 feet in diameter. These bales can weigh up to 1,200 pounds depending on the forage type, moisture content, and density of the bale. For example, John Deere’s Model 448 makes bales that are 46 inches wide in diameters from 36 inches to 51 inches. The Vermeer Rebel 5410 will make bales that are 4 feet wide and anywhere from 36 inches to 60 inches in diameter. Vermeer suggests a minimum of 40 PTO horsepower. You can get away with lower PTO power if you take it slow and don’t load up the bale chamber to maximum capacity — but it’s up to you to save your tractor from bale abuse.

The standard balers also tend to be heavier than the compact and mini balers, so if you choose this route, be certain your tractor can handle the total weight, as well as the drawbar weight of these machines.

Hank Will employs his Kubota tractor with a Vermeer baler to make hay while the sun shines on his Osage County, Kansas, farm.

Read more: Learn about putting up hay the old-fashioned way in Making Hay in Osage County, Kansas.

Round or square bales

There was a time when most hay bales were small rectangular cubes — whether created with a manual-powered stationary or powered mobile balers. These so-called small square bales were favored because they were easy for one person to handle, they stacked neatly and tightly in the barn, and they made it easy to keep track of feeding rates. Some folks still swear by small square bales and pay a premium for them. Particularly in the realm of horse hay and small milking flock hay, the convenience and quality control that’s available with small squares makes a lot of sense. However, when you have 50 head of cattle to feed, the labor associated with making and handling small squares might give you pause. And while there are large-square balers in production today, 500-pound-plus square bales are more difficult to handle, and the high-production-capacity balers that make them require plenty of horsepower to operate and money to purchase.

Most folks think large or small round bales are a modern invention, but that’s not entirely true. One of the first highly successful round balers was the Allis Chalmers Roto-Baler, which was built from the 1940s to 1960. This machine made small round bales that were about the size of small square bales. Fast forward a few decades, and the round baler evolved into the relatively simple machines that roll forage into packages from 40 pounds up to about 2,000 pounds. Round balers have a couple of advantages over small-square balers. They have fewer moving parts, are generally less needy when it comes to adjustments, and they produce hay packages that will naturally shed water should they be left out in the rain. Small-round balers offer most of the advantages found with small-square balers (alfalfa aficionados will argue that small square bales save more leaves), while large round bales are most easily moved around with bale spears on either the tractor’s 3-point hitch, front-end loader or both. If you need tons of hay and have the means to move it relatively easily, the large round bales make a lot of sense.

New or Used

While new balers start around $8,000 for some of the small round-bale machines to a minimum of $15,000 for mini small-square balers to more than $20,000 for larger, standard-sized machines, if you are handy, there are plenty of older used balers on the market that you could use with your compact tractor. In the realm of small-square balers, members of the John Deere Model 14 series are still relatively plentiful — and replacement parts are not too difficult to obtain. These machines can be run with heavier compact tractors. Newer model balers can also work. Some other brands to consider include Massey Ferguson, International Harvester and New Holland.

In the world of large-round balers, the somewhat rare Vermeer 403 (makes 3-foot-wide-by-4-foot-diameter round bales) or more prevalent 504 (makes bales 4 feet wide by up to 5 feet in diameter) families of balers can work nicely, even if you have somewhat less than 40 horsepower at the PTO. Other manufacturers produced round balers in the 4-foot-by-5-foot size and smaller as well. If the hay baler you are looking at was used for making silage (baleage), you might pay a mechanic to look it over carefully since putting up wet forage is tougher on the machine. Round balers have different fundamental operating mechanisms — they all work, but some work better in some conditions than others.

Do your research and talk to folks who make hay in your area to gain insight on pros, cons and expenses associated with individual makes and models of balers before you make the purchase. As with most types of machinery, individual folks may have strong emotional attachment to, or disdain for, a particular brand or style of hay baler. Take it all in with a grain of salt. If your friend seems irrationally against a Vermeer or John Deere, or IH or Hesston, or other brand of baler, you might find someone who actually uses such a machine to gain more useful information.

Functional and small-field-ready used balers of all types can be had for around $1,500 to $6,000 — or much more depending on how recent the model year is. Be sure to look carefully over the spec sheet to be sure the hay baler will work safely with your tractor.

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