It’s that time again! If you bale hay then you’ve already got one cutting done. Depending on the year, we will get 2 or 3 cuttings a year. In other parts of the country, some farmers are able to get 5 or 6 cuttings a year.
If you purchase your hay, then you may be starting to purchase it. Chances are, however, you won’t be thinking about it until fall.
Whether you bale your own or purchase it, you’re going to need to decide what size and shape of bale you want. Let’s look at your options.
For the purpose of this article, we will only discuss six sizes: 14 x 18 (inch) rectangle, 16 x 18 (inch) rectangle, 3 x 3 (foot) rectangle, 3 x 4 (foot) rectangle, and 4 x 4 (foot) rectangle, and your generic round bale. These have traditionally been called square and round bales in the past, but there is a new push to change them to rectangle and round bales, so we’ll just call them that.
The smallest size of bale is going to be your 14 x 18 rectangle bale. This used to be the most common size of “little bale.” Over time, equipment came out to make the bales 16 x 18. Anytime a farmer can put more hay in a single bale and save on time, she or he is happy. Also stack wagons started to come along so that hand stacking right out of the field was no longer necessary for those that had this equipment.
Advantages of the 14 x 18 bale are that they are the smallest size, and thus easiest to move by hand. Teenagers can assist with bale chores at an earlier age with smaller bales than larger ones.
Disadvantages would be that there are more bales to handle and stack. Also, water intrusion either from the ground up, or from rain and snow down into them, is more destructive the smaller the bale is. This makes it not as desirable for long term storage unless you are storing it on cement or gravel with a tarp over it, or a hay barn or shed.
Think of it this way, if water seeps in a foot into a 4 x 4 ft. bale, you still have 3 feet of good feed left to use. With a similar scenario on this smallest bale, you’ve essentially got nothing left. (It would be very difficult to separate those 2 inches.)
Essentially your 16 x 18 bales are the same, only just enough bigger to make them a bit more difficult. If you don’t have a stack wagon or special equipment, this can be a very difficult and frustrating size to deal with–unless you are a big man who likes throwing around big bales.
The two aforementioned sizes are commonly referred to as “small bales.” There is no medium size. The next three sizes are referred to as “large bales.” Large bales require that you have equipment–even if you have someone else do your baling work for you (which is quite common). You cannot move them by hand. (Okay…so you can roll a round bale–but it’s not easy–even if you are a big strong man.)
Large bales are generally eight feet long, although you can adjust the length on about any baler to be anywhere from 2-10 feet long. (You can also adjust the length of small bales.) If you are hiring someone to do your baling for you, there is a possibility that the baler operator doesn’t know how to adjust the size–but the beautiful thing about country folk is that they all help each other. If you want a specific length, it doesn’t hurt to ask–if they don’t know how, they can ask another baler operator (i.e. farmer) that does know how. No big deal.
The smallest of the large bales, is the 3 x 3. The only advantage I know of this size is that it’s bigger than a small bale. (Disclaimer: we hate this size. I may be biased.)
Disadvantages are that this size is bigger than can be moved by hand. At this size, they are tippy, and hard to stack. They are particularly bad to haul.
The 3 x 4 is probably the best size (in my opinion). It is much more stable when moving, stacking, and hauling. They are nearly the same weight as a 4 x 4 bale. Because you have a little less weight, it also causes less wear and tear on your loader.
The 4 x 4 is the biggest size bale you can get–generically called a ton bale. (We’re not counting loaves.) Advantages of this bale is essentially the sheer volume of material in them. The disadvantage, however, is the sheer volume of material in them. They are hard on loaders, and they are cumbersome.
At this size, a smaller tractor (like a compact tractor) will have trouble handling them.
If you are thinking about investing in your first baler, it would be notable to consider that the smaller the bale, the quicker your tying mechanism will wear out. Smaller bales equals slower progress as far as time is concerned.
However, if you are selling bales, smaller bales sell for much more than larger bales (per ton.) Since they are easier for people without equipment to move around, they are more in demand from the small-acreage farmer/rancher.
Other options for bales would include round bales. Some advantages of round bales are that you can bale the hay slightly greener (earlier, less cured, etc.) than rectangle bales. Also, the round baler itself is usually considerably less expensive than a square/rectangle baler. They don’t have nearly the problem with water intrusion as rectangle bales do.
The disadvantages are that you need equipment to use them, and they are not user-friendly when transporting. They cannot be stacked as efficiently as rectangle bales. If you plan to make bales to sell to other people, these are the hardest to sell (at least in our area) because those with equipment to handle them already have their own round baler and hay.
In our opinion (I have no solid research for you here), a round bale will produce more consistent, higher-quality hay. It is what we prefer for our own personal use with our livestock. Note that we have the specific equipment needed to manipulate and use it. It may not be the fastest way to put up hay, but if you are set up for it, it produces a better quality.
Not discussed in this article were loaves, which are essentially a lot of material pressed into gigantic bread-shaped loaf (like the size of my kitchen), as well as 3-stringers.