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Producer modifies equipment, creates self-propelled fluffer

Lynn Jaynes Published on 26 September 2014
self-propelled fluffer

Twenty years ago, John Russell saw an Amish gentleman pulling a fluffer through a hayfield with a team of horses in central Ohio.

It was the type of equipment Russell had been looking for, so he bought one and has owned several since. Russell states fluffers are a common sight in Ohio now and are important to the drydown process.

The problem was: The fluffer was originally designed by an Amish gentleman for an Amish lifestyle; they weren’t really designed to go fast or for large-scale production.

Russell was frustrated and contacted a fluffer manufacturing company, asking them to put more research and design into their product to accommodate large-scale production. He was told that rotary tedders were the wave of the future, so the company wasn’t interested.

The action of a tedder and fluffer are quite different. While a tedder scatters hay across a large area to thin the windrow, the fluffer is designed to simply lift the windrow and set it back down – not to spread it or turn it.

This lifting action fluffs or adds body to the windrow, allowing more air movement to facilitate drydown. If a windrow is 6 inches high after it’s cut, the following fluffing action typically results in a foot-high windrow. Russell maintains the fluffer is gentler on hay than a tedder.

Russell then decided if the right haying equipment didn’t exist, he’d build it. Since producing quality hay and straw are Russell’s only focus, it was important to get it right.

Russell’s issue was this: In Ohio, hay is often cut when the ground is still wet. If a windrow is scattered and spread to assist the drydown, it’s still being spread over wet ground and drydown takes longer.

By keeping the hay in a wide windrow, some portion of the ground – the 3-foot margin between windrows – is allowed to dry. Then when the hay is raked, just before baling, it can be raked onto the dry, 3-foot margin of ground.

Russell isn’t an engineer but he’s more than a tinkering mechanic, and he determined to solve three problems with the current fluffers: speed, quantity and self-propulsion. The first problem was relatively easy to fix.

The four-bar design of the manufactured fluffer could only be pulled at 5 mph. By designing fluffer reels using six bars, the speed could be doubled to 10 mph.

The second and third problems, quantity and self-propulsion, weren’t difficult in concept although they proved to be more challenging in practice. To solve the quantity issue, Russell’s idea was to add two fold-up reels to the original reel and triple the intake. And with 13-foot windrows per reel, he was talking about a 39-foot overall spread.

The last issue was to find a way to help the hay dry (whether fluffing or tedding) without driving on it with the tractor. Self-propulsion was the only way to achieve that goal 100 percent of the time.

Russell built several designs of six-bar reels. And while neither fold-up reels or self-propulsion were new to agriculture, Russell knew it was beyond his abilities to combine the concepts with his reels. That’s when he found Wayne Vogel.

Vogel grew up on a vegetable farm. After a tour with the Marine Corps, he bought an old grocery store in Holton, Michigan, and gutted it to build a machine shop and created Vogel Engineering.

Some of his bigger achievements include development of a carrot harvester and a pickle harvester – units as large as a combine. He specializes in custom farm equipment and hydraulics.

“[Vogel] built a triple-disc mower a few years ago for a guy in Michigan, and I heard about it, so I called him and told him that matched up with what I was trying to do,” Russell says.

Vogel was interested in an improved fluffer, so they met, talked it through and decided the idea was viable. Russell bought a used power unit, a New Holland haybine or swather, from North Dakota and shipped it to Vogel with some of the components Russell had already built. Vogel married the components and the self-propelled unit into one machine.

“One of the challenges,” Vogel says, “was getting the reels to fold up easily. With a normal haybine propulsion unit, the haybine head is quite low. If you fold [the fluffer reels] up in front of you, you’ve got to make sure you can still see to drive.”

What was the cost and was it worth it?
The original unit has a good bit of research and design cost in it, but to manufacture a self-propelled fluffer (minus the self-propelled unit, which the producer provides to Vogel) today, the fold-up hay fluffer with hydraulics, reels and hitch would cost about $50,000 to $60,000, depending on the reel size.

Vogel says, “The 13-foot and 16-foot haybines are the most popular, so if you use a 16-foot haybine, you’ll want reels that are on 15-foot-5-inch centers for overlap. If you use a 13-foot haybine, you’ll want a fluffer that’s on 12-foot-6-inch centers. You use the same reel, but the fold-up mechanism is bigger because you’re going from 39 feet to 48 feet wide in the field.”

After trial and error, building and throwing away reels whose designs didn’t work, and six years from the project’s initial conception, the idea is finally paying off.

Having used and refined the model for two years now, Russell is ready to talk. “I believe it paid for itself last year alone. A lot of people would think that’s pretty extreme, but I know it saved me more than $100,000 last year,” says Russell.

“We had such a difficult year making hay – we’d just get some hay put up and it would rain that night or the next morning, and there’s no doubt that it paid for itself last year alone.”

Russell says the price, quality and quantity of his alfalfa/orchardgrass mix “drops like a rock” if the hay is rained on, whether it’s being sold for the cattle or horse markets.

Anything he can do to help get the hay off the field in good shape makes him money. He typically mows hay one morning, fluffs the windrows onto dry ground the next morning, and by the third day he can rake it and bale it.

“We use a 13-foot cutter head to lay out about a 10-foot-wide swath. This picks that 10-foot-wide swath up and lays it back on the ground. But the important thing is that it maintains the space between the swaths as dry ground. In other words, if the ground is wet when you cut hay and you rotary ted it out, then the ground never really dries out.

And when you rake it, you put the windrow on wet ground. Where with this, the space between the swaths dries out, so when you rake it, you’re raking onto dry ground … leaving the dry space between swaths is the key.”

Russell quickly concedes, “There are years your hay will get rained on no matter what you do. This is just a tool to help you get more of it up in good shape. I can’t stress enough that self-propelled is the way to go because with a pull-type, you’re still driving on hay.”

Future plans
Vogel and Russell don’t think their self-propelled fluffer idea is patent-worthy. Vogel says, “The fluffer has been around for years. All we’re doing is making it bigger and making it self-propelled.

I’ve had patents in the past, but it doesn’t take much to get around an agricultural patent – just change something a little bit. I just try and stay ahead of the game and just progressively keep the idea moving ahead so the farmers can keep using it, just don’t make the same old thing – make it better all the time.”

Russell simply says, “I’m satisfied with the one unit I have. I’m not a manufacturer. I’m a hay producer. I’m not getting into the manufacturing business. I built this for myself, not something to market.”  FG

By attaching a fluffer to a self-propelled unit and adding fold-up reels, John Russell is able to dry hay faster without driving on any of it. Photo provided by John Russell.