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Haying equipment: What happens in the baler’s belly?

Progressive Forage Grower Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 05 August 2014

If a baler were a cow, we could install a cannula into the baler’s belly and watch the internal action. We could install cameras in the throat, the rumen and the nether parts – or the correlating baler parts, such as at the pick-up teeth, the knotter, the cutter, the plunger, and all the way out to the loader and truck.

But would it change our haying practices? I think so. We hear a lot about leaf loss in both grass and alfalfa hay during the harvesting process (especially alfalfa) and how to eliminate it. But it really brings it home when you can actually see the haying process through a different viewpoint – the baler’s belly view.

Prepare to be wowed by the haying view you’ve never seen before, and note the leaf loss throughout the process. Then come back and find out how to minimize these losses.

Watch a video filmed from this unique viewpoint.

Proper adjustment of the mower or conditioner is the best place to start minimizing hay loss. Make sure the knives or cutting bar sickles are sharp so they’ll cut cleanly instead of shattering the leaves.

There is some leaf loss every time you rake hay, so raking when hay is at the right moisture level is crucial. Grass hay tends to lose fewer leaves than alfalfa when raked.

Poorly maintained equipment is a major cause of leaf loss. Missing or broken pick-up teeth leave hay on the field. A pick-up mechanism speed that is too fast or too slow can result in uneven flow through the baler and increase leaf loss. Round balers with fixed bale chambers tend to have higher losses than expanding bale chambers. By keeping the feed rate higher and having a large volume of hay entering the baler, the number of turns within the chamber can be minimized.

Moisture content is the most critical factor in determining overall leaf loss, and every alfalfa and/or grass mixture is different. Bale size will also determine moisture content.

hay management tableTechniques to reduce leaf loss
Once hay is cut, dry matter can only decline. Harvest losses range as low as 10 percent for grass hay to as high as 35 percent for legumes. While small square balers used on alfalfa generally experience 1 to 5 percent loss, under the same conditions losses register 3 to 30 percent for large round balers. These elements contribute to potentially high loss, but can be minimized with proper management, considering moisture content of hay, baler pickup design, bale chamber action and bale movement to storage. Hay moisture content is the largest single factor contributing to leaf loss, where the highest nutrients are stored. Baling at the proper moisture for bale size is critical to leaf retention. See Table 1.

Pick-up mechanism
Losses as high as 12 percent can happen in the pick-up mechanism of a baler. Field speed, size of windrow, hay moisture content and condition of the pick-up mechanism can influence this loss. If the operator is running too fast, hay is jammed into the front of the pick-up mechanism. If the operator runs the baler too slow, the pick-up teeth “snatch” the hay from the windrow, breaking it apart. Optimally, the speed should be such that the windrow is gently lifted and “flows” into the bale chamber with minimum disruption.

Bale chamber
Bale chamber losses can account for as much as 18 percent in balers, due to windrow size, field speed, moisture content, rotating speed and wrapping. Feeding the chamber quickly results in less chamber loss. Thus, accepting more leaf loss on the pickup to quickly fill the bale chamber may constitute an acceptable trade.

Bale transportation
And lastly – this might shock you – do you realize that between 1 and 10 percent yield losses occur when round bales are moved from field to storage? If bales can be moved soon after baling, before they begin to lose shape and wraps or ties begin to deteriorate from UV exposure, the loss can be minimized. Making dense bales will also improve shape, so bales sag less, thus reducing loss.

Returning to our analogy, the baler isn’t a cow, but every leaf you preserve through the haying process will benefit that animal. Don’t lose any leaf that you could have saved.  FG