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Back it up: Haying from the end to the beginning

Gregg Zurliene for Progressive Forage Published on 30 April 2021

Sunshine – a word producers have not said for a while during the winter/holiday season. As we start to climb into the calendar year, experience the beloved time change in March and see longer days filled with sunshine, it means hay season is not far away.

Sunshine brings several thoughts to producers who put up their own forage. Some I think of are:

  • How much carryover hay am I going to have?

  • What needs worked on or gone over before we start the madness in May (as I call it here in Missouri)?

  • What is the current market price for hay (because I want to know what the demand is before we start the process of putting up hay)?

  • How do I make the hay harvesting operation more efficient?

Let’s look at the efficiencies from the end to the beginning – and perhaps start with assessing your weather patterns. What time window do you have with the weather pattern? Do you have three days of perfect weather and one day of “ish” weather, or do you have five days of low humidity, 8 mph breeze with not a drop of dew in the morning?

Matching power

When thinking efficiencies in mowing hay, I look at throughput of mower matched to crop first. For instance, first cutting is always the lushest from winter and new spring growth; therefore, it is going to be about the hardest crop to get through the mower and will require a tractor matched with power takeoff (PTO) horsepower to cut width. If you are running a mower with conditioners, this can be a challenge based on how conditioners work and move crop out the back. Reference back to thinking from the end to the beginning: How do I want that crop to look on the ground after I mow it?

In some areas, the most common practice is running a tedder right behind the mower, so who cares what it looks like, right? Producers who put up baleage or wet hay have a different opinion on how that windrow needs to look coming out of the mower. Some guys make the next pass across the field with a baler and bale the windrow right up, not even making a pass with a rake. In this practice, you don’t want the crop laying flat on the ground; you want it at a slight angle so the baler pickup does not struggle to get the crop picked up. If the crop is flat, the pickup teeth often are not at the correct angle or long enough to get a hold of the crop to get it moved into the bale chamber. This is when you have to drop a gear and run slower, getting fewer bales per hour, burning the same amount of fuel, putting the same number of hours on the tractor and hopefully not getting in and out of the cab to fine-tune anything.


As mentioned before, tedding is a practice some producers use (and others look at you like: What planet did you land here from?). One point producers often overlook in tedding hay is the size of tedder they have compared to the mower they are running. It’s common to see 13-foot mowers and 18-foot tedders in the U.S. (and I’m not an accountant, but those numbers are not a pair). This makes for inefficiencies in the process as to how the tedder performs – often not being used to maximum capacity.

It takes the same tractor to pull an 18-foot unit as it does a 30-foot unit anymore. Manufacturers have done a tremendous job in engineering these tools to be utilized with lower-horsepower tractors. A few manufacturers make models up to 60 feet, and these are gaining a place in the market (such as 24-row corn planters are). With thinking from the end to beginning, this makes it nice going from a unit that will cover 12 acres an hour to a unit that can cover 24 to 30 acres per hour; we have immediately cut our time, fuel and labor in half. But I also understand this comes with an associated cost.


The process of raking has several different angles to look at it from, but ultimately it ends with the hay or forage crop ready to go into the baler. I can elaborate for a long time on efficiencies about any style or model of rake, but the one point that gets overlooked a lot is the proper rake setting. I often tell producers the best rake operator is the guy who runs the baler, not too wide and not too narrow; they know what the windrow needs to look like to make the baling process go smoothly and efficiently. Once again, think from the end to the beginning on how you want the windrow to look coming out the back of the rake.


Now comes the process of baling the crop, when we really feel like we are getting something done. Whether it be a small square, big square or round baler, I like to think from the end to the beginning (as in, geez, I wish this were done).

I was recently talking to a producer who said he was going to be putting up close to 10,000 round bales of straw this year. I asked him how long it took for his tie system and tailgate to cycle on his round baler and he said, “Oh, I am not sure, but it’s fast.” I said, “Let’s use this for a reference: Let’s say net start to tailgate down is 60 seconds, or a minute (this is pretty fast) and you are making 40 bales an hour with the crop conditions. It’s pretty simple: You are sitting still 40 minutes of the hour you are baling and not picking up any crop. On a five-hour day of baling, that is 200 bales on the ground – and over half the time you were working, you weren’t moving.”

“I have never looked at it that way,” he said.

At that scale, it’s time to consider a big square baler. I often refer to the square balers (whether big or small) as the original nonstop baler. A big square baler can increase the efficiencies in an operation threefold.


The final process is handling the product. With decreasing labor supply, there has been a very rapid response to handling hay and getting it off the field and into a storage facility. Several manufacturers make handling tools, and most are single-person-operated, self-propelled stack wagons or round bale pickup wagons. Some manufacturers make equipment that picks the bales up in the field and unloads on to the wrapper for wet hay producers. This eliminates several things such as labor cost, handling the bale two or three times before it is wrapped and also foot traffic on the field that could cause a decrease in plant production for the next cutting.

If we continue our mantra to think from the end to the beginning, we might ask: How can I get to the end of this process more quickly and more efficiently? Handling and hauling are very often overlooked as part of the process, but this can take a lot of time, fuel and wear on equipment.

I wish everyone a safe and successful spring and summer in the hay-making business, and before long we will be looking at the end of hay season.  end mark

Gregg Zurliene
  • Gregg Zurliene

  • Territory Manager
  • Poettinger US Inc.
  • Email Gregg Zurliene