As cattle & milk prices increase, so does demand for bale handling equipment.

Baling was the job everyone dreaded in summer. It meant hot days, long sleeves, heavy jeans and blistered hands. Of course, the competition for who could throw bales the farthest and knock someone off a pile always made the day go by a little faster.

Eric Woodford, owner of Woodford Equipment in Emmetsburg, Iowa, jokes and says the most undesirable job of baling is moving the bales from the field. “It’s very time and labor consuming,” he says. “The ‘glory’ job is the baling itself, and the one people take the most pride in.”

Today, bale handling has changed, indisputably. “There are very few areas left in North America where you can simply go out and hire someone who wants to move bales by hand, at any price,” says David Steffen of Steffen Systems in Salem, Ore.

With 5 spears on the lower frame and 12 teeth on the main frame, the Steffen System Model 2505VHD safely and securely unloads and carries bale bundles.

Photo Courtesy of Woodford Equipment

Trends in Bale Handling

John Heller, product manager for Hay Tools at Farm King, says the demand for bale handling tools has been slow the past few years, but is increasing once again, in relation to the increase in cattle and milk commodity prices. Two big advantages of mechanical bale handlers are speed and efficiency, which Heller says appeals especially to larger producers. “With limited labor available, a mechanical bale handler can load/stack with one operator,” he explains. “Using a flatbed or front-end loader requires fuel for two tractors and two operators or extra time to hook/unhook the flatbed from the loader.”

This industry insider acknowledges the cost is more upfront, and tough to justify for some farmers. For big bale products, Steffen says the investment is actually less expensive overall, however. In the savings on labor and time, a mechanical bale handler pays off, but the timing of that is different for each uniquely sized operation.

While the interest in small bales has recovered from the 2008 recession, the sales of big bale handlers is growing rapidly as well, especially for those involved in hay exports and bale handling for ethanol plants. Phil Chrisman and Josh Vrieze, beef and dairy product managers for Vermeer, agree. “In the areas where biomass is being harvested, we certainly expect to see more interest in this type of equipment,” they say. Woodford concurs, and says advanced biofuel production is stepping bale movers out of the shadows in a big way. “Bale movers will be very critical on a lot more farms and that will really expand the market,” he adds.

The Vermeer team says the systems garnering the most attention today are the single bale in-line machines, which move 7 bales, or double-wide units that can accommodate 14. There is also a worldwide trend of limiting manual lifting to only 60 pounds, Steffen adds, and explains many modern bales exceed that limit. “With the big bale products, not only are bale handlers less expensive, but can be adapted to most loaders, and they can be used for unloading or feeding as well,” he notes.

Chad Burkholder, a sales specialist at Binkley & Hurst in Lititz, Pa., says bale accumulators are addressing this issue, and offering the best of both worlds to small and large bale farmers. He says they offer a simple design and functional reliability, packaging small bales into one, larger, easier-to-move package.

“To be in farming today, like many other industries, farmers need larger equipment to cover more acres, and then make everything balance out in pencil,” he says, referring to the bottom line they must keep in mind. “That’s made the speed of production and reduced manual labor very important.”

Customer Customization

Woodford says he and his wife carry a large variety of brands and sizes of bale moving equipment at their dealership because every farm has a unique situation and goal when it comes to handling bales. He also prefers the term “automated bale movers” and explains it reduces confusion for customers, since the word “automated” immediately establishes that the machine will load and unload bales.

Once he has an understanding of a farmer’s needs, he can provide a tailored automated bale moving solution for them. Price point, how many bales a day will be moved and the time constraints the farmer is working with all are taken into consideration.

Burkholder agrees. He says the equine segment, landscaping, small farming operations and other smaller, niche operations prefer a 40-pound small square bale, for example. This is a totally different equipment choice than a farmer putting up thousands of bales of corn stover. “Regardless, producers are looking for a reliable system that requires less manual labor and yields them better profit potential, as well as marketability of their crop,” Burkholder explains.

Custom operators are in a category of their own, Woodford explains. They want a higher level of durability, but also are willing to pay the higher price point for it. He says these operations also want bales to be left in laser-straight rows with a power push-off. “People will drive by the field where the bales are left year-round, so the farmers want a professional-looking job,” Woodford explains.

On the other hand, a farmer who’s moving bales from the field to feedlot doesn’t necessarily care how they unload, because they’re going to move them again with the loader. “I can steer him toward a mover with less moving parts to maintain down the road and more of a dump truck style,” he says.

In the Round

In the Midwest, 5 x 6-foot round bales are the preferred choice for farmers Woodford works with. He says they have a large capacity and the balers are more reasonably priced than their large square counterparts.

The biggest difference in round bale handlers is how they unload, he explains. Some push bales off the rear, while others slide off the rear like a dump truck. The power push-off is a desired feature, as it lays bales in very straight rows. More inexpensive balers will throw bales off to the side into unorganized rows, but also boast less moving parts, so there’s a decrease in maintenance and lifecycle costs.

The Vermeer in-line ramp turns the bales sideways during baling, allowing a farmer to load directly up and down the rows instead of across. This has demonstrated a 30-40% reduction in time associated with moving bales.

Vermeer also offers automatic greasers, O-ring chains on its balers, and bearings that make the product’s durability high, he adds. Bale handling manufacturers, in general, are stepping up to build heavy-duty machines. “Customers have to move lots of bales in a very short time span, so that’s tough on people and equipment, and manufacturers are recognizing the need to make the pieces stronger,” Woodford says.

Bale Accumulators

Burkholder says while Binkley & Hurst offers many varieties of large and small bale handlers, small bale accumulators have become more popular in the last 5-7 years. They have a 20-year history in the industry, but with the diversity in agriculture combined with the need for production speed and labor reduction they are steadily gaining new interest from farmers.

“It’s a product that can tend to make a busy dealership more overwhelmed, but also a way to meet the needs of a more diverse group of producers,” he says. The Kuhn Accumulator and Marcrest Mfg. Bale Baron, which Binkley & Hurst carries, take small square bales and packages them into easier-to-handle bundles, an exciting innovation for farmers, Burkholder notes. They provide the ease of handling a large bale, but the end user can cut the strands of twine and handle each small bale individually.

The standard large square bales run typically 3 x 3 x 8 feet or 4 x 4 x 8 feet and weigh more than 1,000 pounds, depending on moisture levels and the crop itself. “They can become a very heavy package and there’s no way to break them down into something you can hold with your hands,” he says. Because of this, small bale accumulators are most popular with those providing hay and straw for small farms with horses, alpacas or even the landscaping industry.

The Bale Baron from Marcrest Mfg. is at work in the fields, taking small bales and packaging them into easier-to-handle bundles. Photo Courtesy of Woodford Equipment

Down the Row

Looking ahead, Burkholder says market conditions will continue to play a large part in the sales of mechanical bale handlers. “Hay competes with corn and soybeans for ground, but even still, I expect to see an upward trend,” he says. Steffen says weather is always a factor in this outlook, and while baled products are used widely in specialty farming industries, the current market values also influence purchasing decisions.

Small square bales on their own are limited in capacity, but Burkholder says manufacturers will be focusing on how to increase that and move them efficiently. Woodford agrees the capacity issue is on manufacturers’ minds, as is durability and functionality. In his area of the country, a lot of engineering effort is being put toward making a better bale handling products.

Durability is in fact at the top of the list, confirms the duo from Vermeer. “The current offering of bale movers has been designed to move bales in a hay field, which tends to be much smoother than a cornstalk field,” they say. “Cornstalk and other crop residue baling continue to increase and customers are looking for better ways to efficiently move those types of bales.”

The systems farmers are looking for is equally split between small and large, Steffen adds. He says some want to make small bales for the higher price they will receive, or ease of use on the home farm, while others are exporting and/or are big producers on tight tillage timelines.

To figure out the best option for an individual farmer, dealerships must know their customer, their baling patterns, needs and goals. Some farmers may want to incorporate stackers, use modified skid loaders, wrappers or bale banders. A farmer must also realize his reason for producing hay, and expected outcome based on market values. Dealers can help a customer make the best possible business decisions based on long-term goals, not trends or the next must-have piece of equipment. Or if the farmer has a large brood of neighborhood kids willing to put in some summer hours.