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Hay transport – A short history

Brad Nelson Published on 22 July 2010
Tom Justus of Othello, Washington

The first hay wagon I drove had four rubber tires under it and it was propelled by a VAC model Case tractor. I was three years old. Dad aimed it between the shocks of hay and tied the steering wheel in place with a rope.

The crew included those on the ground with pitch forks who threw the loose hay onto the hay wagon. One or two “trampers” were on the wagon, their job to even out the load and “waller it down” so they could get more hay on the wagon.

I could stretch my leg out and mash on the starter button when the crew hollered at me to go. When they shouted stop, I pushed in the ignition switch, stopping the engine.

I remember my cousin, Jeannie, one of the trampers, threatened to tie a string to my ear since she thought I was not paying attention to the “go” and “stop” directives.

One day my dad accidentally caught Jeannie on the ankle with the tip of his pitch fork as he threw a shock of hay onto the wagon. I wasn’t present when it happened, but I remember being terrified that they were going to come and put my dad in jail because he stuck Jeannie with the pitch fork.

The first time I remember a load of hay being dumped, I was on top of it. It was winter in Mink Creek, Idaho, and dad ran short of hay and bought some from a neighbor.

He hitched up Kate and Brownie and then anchored the team to the same hay wagon we used in the summer, only now it sat on the framework of a four-runner sleigh.

Dad used a hay knife, which was three or four feet long, to saw a break into the stack of long hay so he could pitch it down onto our hay wagon sleigh one pitchfork-full at a time. When it was loaded, I got to ride on top.

The roadway from the stack to the main road had two strips of packed snow that the runners of sleighs and the wheels of cars and tractors had packed down.

For some reason, the runners of Dad’s sleigh slipped off of the packed snow onto soft snow, and then the hay fell off of the sleigh. I don’t remember being covered up by either snow or hay, but I remember my dad being pretty excited until he found me.

This was not before the time of hay balers. It was just that the hay balers were huge stationary machines that took a dozen men and either a steam engine or half a dozen head of horses walking in a circle to power.

A common usage was to position a stationary baler near a railhead and then haul long hay to it, bale it and load it into rail cars for transport to market. You can imagine what the leaf retention was like in the finished product.

hay truck

Some things have not changed over the years. Hay remains too far away from the end user, and there is considerable ingenuity involved in getting it moved.

To export hay, most of it is “double-compressed” and loaded into export containers just like everything else that moves across the water from one country to another is moved in.

The freight rate is more by volume than by weight; and double- compressing hay gets the containers close to their maximum weight. This translates into almost doubling the tonnage that can be loaded into a container.

Getting the hay from the grower to the exporter or to the feed store or to the dairy or feedlot gets a lot more interesting. A truck that hauls mostly hay falls into the category of a specialized carrier.

The load-carrying deck on a hay truck will be lower to the ground than most, since that means the driver can load more bales without being too high.

Most states allow a truck and its load to be 14 feet tall. Some limit the height to 13 feet 6 inches. Either 96 inches (8 feet) or 102 inches (8 ½ feet) is the usual limit for width.

Most Western states allow a total gross weight of 105,500 pounds, and power unit and trailer lengths vary wildly state to state. California is the notable exception in the West, still limiting the gross weight to 80,000 pounds with double trailers limited to 28 feet each.

In the Northwest, Washington State is the hold-out as far as not allowing “triples.” Most of the states allow, with restrictions as to road usage, combinations up to 105 feet long, with the general maximum weight being 105,500 pounds.

The maximum gross weight for Washington is the same, but the limit for double trailers is 68 feet from the front of the lead trailer to the back of the rear trailer. The two most popular combinations are a pair of 32-foot trailers and a 40-foot lead trailer with a 24-foot “pup.”

To maximize the number of bales that can be hauled, we see quite a few “belly” trailers. This is a three-foot deep “basement” in the center of the trailer between the front and rear axles.

The difference? Send a freight hauler with 64 feet of usable deck space for a load of hay and you will probably get 536 two-tie bales on the load.

This is if the truck has a deck height of 56 inches or less. I have observed freight trucks with a deck height in excess of 60 inches being sent for a load of two-tie baled hay. This translates into a 456-bale load.

Send a hay hauler with flat trailers (also with 64 feet of usable deck space) and a 52-inch deck height and you can expect up to 604 two-tie bales.

Send a hay hauler with belly trailers and expect up to 740 two-tie bales. These bale counts are with 16-inch by 18- inch by 44- to 48-inch bales.

Note that many hay trucks have a deck height of less than 48 inches, allowing for more bales than the bale counts listed above. The increasing bale counts mean hand stacking to place more layers on edge, at 18 inches tall versus the 16 inches when laid flat.

There is a major difference between covering the load with a tarp and keeping the load dry. What do you say to a driver who tells you that if he knew you needed the hay to be delivered dry, he would have tarped it different?

When weather and market conditions cause hay to move longer distances than normal, we see hay, particularly big bales, either 3x4 or 4x4, moving on freight trucks. It moves at a “backhaul” rate, which translates that it pays the fuel to get an empty truck in the area of a paying load.

This saves money on freight for the end user but there needs to be someone close to the loading site who understands hay to watch out for the welfare of the person receiving the hay on the other end.

Things get interesting when hay is ordered with all six sides of the bale to be clean and green and the loading crew loads it “BG&F” (blood, guts & feathers, or any bale even close to the stack that is not tied down – wet tops, muddy bottom bales and any “goobered” bales in the center of the stack). This is one of the joys of sending a freight hauler to haul hay.

Back in the 1980s I loaded a load of hay from the Mud Lake area of eastern Idaho. There was a drought in the Midwest and the government was paying the freight to truck Idaho hay to the Midwest.

By 10 a.m. when I got to the loading area, the ranch crew had loaded three or four freight haulers. They told me it was wonderful to see me show up since it had been a couple of days since they had seen anyone in a truck who had even seen a bale of hay before.

They told me that one driver dumped his load three times between the haystack and the road. After the third dump, they refused to load him again and told him to go away.

Every professional hay hauler I ever knew has taken it personal when anyone calls him (or her) a truck driver. Having and driving a hay truck is incidental to what they do for a living.

Most of the time the hay hauler is the only person between the grower and the end user who understands hay. He is the one who knows to bring the more mature second cutting alfalfa to a horse stable rather than the super-soft, high-protein and low-fiber fourth that may look just a bit prettier.

He is also the one who will realize that the stack he is sent to load from probably is not good dairy hay, and make a cell phone call to the intended end user to make sure what quality of hay was actually purchased.

In the end, all hay will end up somewhere as manure. The interesting part is the journey from the dirt the hay grows in to the dirt the manure is applied to.  FG

PHOTO 1: Tom Justus of Othello, Washington stands next to his loaded truck

PHOTO 2: Notice the neat, square hand-stacked load of grass hay. Two layers of the bales are stacked on edge and the other five layers are stacked flat. This is to use up all of the 14-feet of height the law allows and get more bales on the load, which amounts to more money in the pocket. Photos courtesy of Brad Nelson.