Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

Build your own large bale-spear, hay-loader head

Michael J. Thomas for Progressive Forage Published on 28 April 2017
Quick-tach mounting brackets on this four-spear, hay loader

Much like the transitions other ranchers and farmers have experienced over the past 50-plus years, our evolution with hay handling here in rural Idaho has been a transition from loose hay, to small square bales, to large round and square bales.

Each transition was made with an attempt to increase efficiency and reduce waste and cost. Along with each transition, as the packages grew larger, came a new machine or implement to handle the hay during transportation and feeding. We, on our small ranch, moved into the large bale arena kicking and screaming. Our tractors and loaders were not big enough to handle the bales.

One winter, about 20 years ago, we could not locate straw for bedding in small square bales and were forced to buy 4X4X8 bale straw. The only loader attachment we had to handle hay was a 10-pack, small-bale head. We managed to fight the large straw bales off of the truck to the ground and then struggled with them the rest of the winter.

At that time, we realized we would have to catch up with the movement to larger bales or continue to have difficulty locating, and affording, hay and straw that our small operation could not produce.

Over the next couple years, we borrowed a prefabricated hay spear from a neighbor to unload these larger bales and handle them, but the hay head was underbuilt. We realized that in addition to tying up the neighbor’s hay spear, sooner or later we were going to have to repair or replace it. That led us to begin the search for a permanent solution.

With the help of a good local metal fabricator, Bob Minor, who owns Minor Irrigation Parts and Service near Baker, Idaho, we began building our own bale-spear hay heads. Minor had been building bale heads for many years and had a good idea about the necessary design and material requirements to build a head that would stand up to the day-to-day abuse dished out by the ever-increasing demands of handling big bales.

At that time, Minor advised that, while factory built hay heads were easily available, many were not built tough enough for hard use, and he recommended building – or hiring to be built – your own hay head out of heavier gauge material.

Recently, I talked to Minor about the subject and he says, “Even today, factory-built heads are often not built heavy enough for what we expect of them. Of the 30-plus heads that I have built over the past 28 years, not one has come back for repairs on the frame.

I have had to replace broken spears for people over the years, but never repaired the frame itself. I like to use 4-inch-by-4-inch 250 tubing (1/4-inch wall thickness) or 4-inch-by-6-inch 250 tubing (1/4-inch wall thickness) for the bottom beam and basic frame. You can get away with 188 (3/16-inch wall thickness) for the outside vertical and top beams, but you need the heavier wall for all of the main load-bearing portions of the frame.”

If you are new to large round or square bales, or are simply upscaling your operation to handle more and heavier bales, it is worth considering building your own bale-spear hay head for your loader. You may have some or all of the materials to build the frame on hand or will find they are readily available.

Lynn Thomas, owner of Sky Range Ranch located near Salmon, Idaho, says, “We built our first bale spear from an old automobile hoist out of a service garage. The lift was going to be scrapped and we picked it up cheap. It was built from two parallel 6-inch, heavy duty I-beams about 16 feet long with a rectangular central core 2 feet by 6 feet long.

We cut the I-beams away from the main body of the hoist frame, used the main body as the central portion of the bale spear, welded one of the extra pieces of I-beam across the bottom to serve as the receiver beam for the spears, and used two more pieces to build the vertical extensions to prevent the top bale, when carrying two at a time, from tipping back onto the hood or cab of the tractor.”

As you set out to begin the project of building the bale-spear hay head, determine what type and number of bales you will be handling at one time. “When we built our hay head, we were only handling 4X4X8 big bales and the width of the head was perfect. Later, we began to purchase and make round bales and the 7-foot width of this head turned out to be a bit wide,” Thomas says.

I had experienced the same issue in my own operation while transporting and feeding round bales and 4X4X8 bales, so when I had Minor help me build a bale-spear hay head for a new loader a couple years ago, we built this head 5 feet wide and 4.5 feet tall.

A head wider than the bale causes problems when reaching across a truck or trailer when loading or unloading, as the head can grab the bales adjacent to the one you are handling. The 5-foot head is narrow enough to work well for 6-foot round bales and tall enough to carry two 4X4X8 big square bales.

Once you have an idea what size and weight of bales you are going to handle, you need to determine what length bale spear you will need and how many. The 49-inch spear is a standard for handling large round and square bales. If you plan to handle 3X3X8 bales exclusively, you can use a 39-inch spear.

You can carry one 4X4X8 bale with 39-inch spears, but it is not advisable to carry more than one, as the short spears will cut up through the bottom bale, causing you to drop the load. Also, note that it is important to install enough spears to safely and effectively carry the heaviest load you anticipate. Some manufactured bale-spear heads come with only two spears.

While this may be sufficient for moderate bale weights, the inherent safety risk to you, bystanders and your loader tractor is that in the event one spear breaks, the load will shift and fall. For most large bale applications, a minimum or four spears is recommended, and in cases of continuous handling of multiple heavy 4X4X8 bales, loading and unloading trucks or stacking, five spears is considered more secure and reliable.

“The bale spears and the weld-in sleeves to mount the spears into the bottom beam of the loader head are available at most farm supply stores and implement dealers,” Minor says. “Prices run between $80 and $100 per spear, and $15 to $18 per mounting sleeve.”

Lay out and build the outer frame for the bale head before installing the spears. Once you have squared and welded the outer frame of the head, measure and mark the locations for the holes for the receiver sleeves equal distance from one another. “Mark a clean 2-inch circle for each sleeve.

The sleeve is slightly less than 2 inches. Cut right on the line and this will give you enough gap to easily insert the sleeve, allowing you room to square up the spears and give you a void for good weld penetration,” says Minor.

Next, determine the location for the two vertical load-bearing frame members where your loader arms and tilt cylinders will connect to the hay head by measuring the width of your loader arms and tilt cylinders. Weld these members in place.

You are now ready to install the mounting brackets for the hay head. In the past, hay heads were attached with pins. Today “quick-tach” kits are available for all major loaders. It is worth the time and money to use this system to attach your loader if you anticipate switching from the hay head to a bucket or other attachment in the future.

These brackets are available through all major loader dealers. Weld the female quick-tach brackets to the vertical load-bearing members of your new bale-spear hay head and you are ready to attach the head to your loader.

The time and materials invested in building your own bale-spear loader head, customized to your needs and expectations, will pay you back for years to come.  end mark

PHOTO: The quick-tach mounting brackets on this four-spear, hay-loader head make switching easier between the bale spear and other attachments. Photo by Michael J. Thomas. 

Michael J. Thomas
  • Michael J. Thomas

  • Freelance Writer, Stock Producer and Farm Mechanic
  • Based in Salmon, Idaho