Mc Hale F550 and New Holland T6090 tractor baling in a field

The Use Of Balers in Farming: History and Operation

Baling hay and straw has been an essential part of farming for centuries. It allows farmers to store and transport large amounts of feed for their livestock, especially during the winter months. The history of balers in farming is a long and interesting one, with many innovations and improvements over the years.

Early balers were simple hand-operated devices that compressed hay and straw into rectangular bales. These bales were tied with twine or wire and then transported to storage areas. As agriculture became more mechanised in the 19th and 20th centuries, balers were developed that could be pulled by horses or tractors. These machines made the process of baling much faster and more efficient, allowing farmers to produce more feed with less labour.

Today, balers are sophisticated machines that can produce large or small square bales (rectangular in shape) and round bales. They use mechanical systems to compress the hay or straw and some balers can also wrap it in plastic or netting to protect it from the elements.

The history of balers in farming is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of farmers and agricultural engineers.

Evolution of Balers

Early Baling Innovations

In the early days of farming, hay and straw were harvested by hand and transported in loose form. This was an inefficient and time-consuming process. The first baling innovation was the hand-tied square bale, which was introduced in the late 1800s. This allowed farmers to transport hay and straw more efficiently, but it was still a labour-intensive process.

Development of Automatic Balers

The development of automatic balers in the 1930s revolutionized the hay and straw industry. These balers used wire or twine to automatically tie bales, eliminating the need for manual labour. John Deere and New Holland were two of the leading manufacturers of automatic balers.

Rise of Round and Large Square Balers

In the 1970s, the round baler was introduced, which allowed for faster and more efficient baling. The round baler uses hydraulics to compress hay or straw into a cylindrical shape, which is then wrapped in twine or netting. The large square baler was also introduced around this time, which produces rectangular bales that are easier to stack and transport.

A variable chamber round baler -baling straw
A variable chamber round baler -baling straw.

The introduction of the internal combustion tractor and steam traction engine also played a significant role in the development of balers, allowing farmers to cover more ground and harvest more hay and straw.

Baler Mechanics and Components

When it comes to the mechanics and components of a baler, there are several key features that are essential for the proper functioning of the machine. In this section, we will discuss the bale chamber, plunger, knotter and twine handling, and the pick-up and feeder mechanism.

Bale Chamber and Plunger On Square Balers

The bale chamber is where the hay or straw is compressed into a bale. The size of the bale chamber can vary depending on the type of baler, but generally, it is where the hay or straw is compacted and shaped into a rectangular or cylindrical bale.

The plunger is responsible for pushing the hay or straw into the bale chamber and compressing it. The plunger on square balers are typically powered by a mechanical connection to a gearbox, which provides the force needed to compress the hay or straw.

A large square baler baling straw.
A large square baler baling straw.

Round balers do not have a plunger, they operate by rotating the crop into a cylinder until it reaches a pressure threshold.

Knotter and Twine Handling on Square Balers

The knotter is responsible for tying the twine around the bale to hold it together. The knotter uses a system of hooks and knives to tie the twine around the bale and cut it to the correct length.

The twine is stored in a twine box, which feeds the twine into the knotter as needed. The twine handling system is an essential component of the baler, as it ensures that the bales are securely tied and will not come apart during transport or storage.

Variable Chamber and Fixed Chamber Round Balers

Variable chamber and fixed chamber round balers are two distinct types of balers commonly used in modern agricultural practices. Each type offers unique features and benefits suited to different farming needs. Let’s delve into each type:

Variable Chamber Round Balers:

Variable chamber round balers are designed to produce bales of variable sizes. This means that the length and diameter of the bales can be adjusted according to the needs of the farmer or the specifications of the crop being baled. Here are some key features and benefits of variable chamber round balers:

  1. Flexibility: One of the primary advantages of variable chamber balers is their flexibility. Farmers can adjust the size of the bales based on factors such as crop type, storage space availability, and transportation requirements.
  2. Efficiency: Variable chamber balers are known for their efficiency in producing tightly packed bales of various sizes. This allows farmers to optimize the use of available storage space and transport resources.
  3. Productivity: With the ability to produce bales of different sizes without stopping to adjust settings, variable chamber balers can help improve overall productivity during the baling process.
  4. Versatility: These balers are suitable for a wide range of crops, including grass, hay, straw, and silage. Farmers can easily switch between different types of crops without significant adjustments to the baler settings.

Fixed Chamber Round Balers:

Fixed chamber round balers, as the name suggests, produce bales of fixed dimensions. The size of the bales remains consistent throughout the baling process. Here are some key features and benefits of fixed chamber round balers:

  1. Simplicity: Fixed chamber balers are known for their simplicity and ease of use. They typically have fewer moving parts compared to variable chamber balers, which can result in reduced maintenance requirements and lower operating costs.
  2. Consistency: Because fixed chamber balers produce bales of uniform size and shape, they are well-suited for applications where consistency is important, such as in livestock feeding or forage sales.
  3. Durability: Fixed chamber balers are often built to withstand the rigours of heavy-duty baling operations. Their robust construction and straightforward design make them reliable machines for long-term use.
  4. Cost-Effectiveness: In some cases, fixed chamber balers may be more cost-effective to purchase and operate compared to variable chamber models. They offer a simpler baling solution for farmers with relatively consistent baling needs.

Pick-Up and Feeder Mechanism

The pick-up and feeder mechanism is responsible for gathering the hay or straw from the field and feeding it into the bale chamber. The pick-up mechanism uses a system of tines or teeth to lift the hay or straw off the ground and feed it into the baler. The feeder mechanism then guides the hay or straw into the bale chamber, where it is compressed by the plunger. The pick-up and feeder mechanism is typically powered by a chain drive or shaft, which provides the necessary power and torque to lift and move the hay or straw.

In summary, the baler is a complex machine that relies on several key components to function properly. The bale chamber and plunger, knotter and twine handling, and pick-up and feeder mechanism are all essential features that work together to create tightly packed bales of hay or straw. By understanding the mechanics and components of the baler, we can appreciate the ingenuity and innovation that has gone into the development of this important piece of farming equipment.

Types and Uses of Balers

Over the years, balers have evolved to meet different needs and applications. In this section, we will discuss the different types and uses of balers.

Round Vs Square Balers

The two most common types of balers are round and square balers. Round balers were first introduced in the 1970s and are popular for their ability to handle wet and heavy crops like hay, cotton, and silage. They are also versatile and can handle different crop sizes and shapes.

Round balers compress crops into cylindrical bales that are easy to handle and transport. Square balers, on the other hand, are more common in Europe and are popular for their ability to produce uniform and stackable bales. They are ideal for dry crops like hay and straw and produce bales that are easy to store and transport.

Specialised Balers for Different Crops

Different crops require different types of balers to achieve optimal bale quality and productivity. For example, cotton requires a specialised baler that can handle its delicate fibres without damaging them.

Silage requires a baler that can handle its high moisture content – usually a fixed chamber baler. Some balers are also designed to handle crops with different densities and shapes, such as corn stalks, sugarcane, and wheat straw.

Baler Operation and Handling

Preparing for Baling

Before baling, it is important to ensure that the crop is dry enough to avoid spoilage and mould growth. This can be achieved by cutting the crop at the right time and allowing it to dry.

Then we can rake it into rows to make it more uniform to feed into the baler. The more uniform the crop being fed into the baler is the better the baler will operate.

Moisture Content

Moisture meters are essential to check the moisture content of the crop before baling, unless you are a seasoned baler.

The ideal moisture content for straw before baling typically ranges from 12% to 20%. This moisture level helps ensure that the straw is pliable enough to form dense, well-shaped bales without being overly dry or prone to excessive brittleness. Baling straw with higher moisture content can increase the risk of mould growth and spoilage during storage, while excessively dry straw may result in loose, poorly formed bales that are prone to breakage.

Baling Process and Techniques

Once we have rowed the crop, we can start the baling process. We can use either a round baler or a small or large square baler, depending on our needs.

Bale sizes

Small square bales are easy to lift by hand but very labour-intensive.

Our John Deere small square baler baling hay.

Round bales and large square bales are not the same size. They differ in their shape and dimensions, which can impact handling, storage, and transportation in agricultural operations. Here’s a comparison of the two:

Round Bales:

  • Round bales are cylindrical in shape and are typically produced by round balers.
  • They come in various sizes, with diameters ranging from around 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) and widths ranging from 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters).
  • The weight of a round bale varies depending on factors such as crop type, moisture content, and bale size but can range from a few hundred pounds to over a ton.

Large Square Bales:

  • Large square bales are rectangular in shape and are produced by large square balers.
  • They have consistent dimensions, with typical sizes being around 3 feet by 3 feet by 8 feet (0.9 meters by 0.9 meters by 2.4 meters).
  • Large square bales are often heavier than round bales due to their denser packing and uniform shape.
  • They are favoured for their stackability and ease of transport, especially for long-distance hauling and storage.

While both round bales and large square bales serve the purpose of compacting and storing hay, straw, or other forage materials, their shapes and sizes offer distinct advantages and disadvantages depending on the specific needs of the farm operation. Factors such as equipment compatibility, storage space, handling logistics, and feeding methods may influence the choice between round bales and large square bales.

To start the baling process, we need to attach the baler to a tractor and drive it over the windrows. The baler will pick up the hay and compress it into a bale. We can use netting, metal, or plastic to wrap the bale and keep it intact.

Post-Baling Handling and Storage

Post-baling handling and storage are crucial steps in the process of managing hay, straw, or other forage materials on a farm. Proper handling and storage practices help preserve the quality and nutritional value of the baled material while minimizing waste and maintaining efficiency in farm operations. Here are some key considerations for post-baling handling and storage:

  1. Handling:
    • Bale Stacking: After baling, it’s important to stack the bales in a stable and organized manner to maximize storage space and minimize damage. Stacking bales on flat, well-drained surfaces helps prevent moisture accumulation and deterioration.
    • Handling Equipment: Use appropriate handling equipment such as bale spears, forks, or grapples attached to tractors or loaders for efficient bale transport and stacking. Ensure that equipment is properly maintained and operated by trained personnel to prevent accidents and damage to bales.
    • Protection from Weather: If bales will be stored outdoors, consider covering them with tarps or plastic wraps to protect them from exposure to rain, snow, and sunlight. Properly covered bales are less likely to spoil or lose nutritional value due to weather-related damage.
  2. Storage:
    • Location: Choose a suitable location for bale storage, considering factors such as accessibility, drainage, and proximity to feeding areas. Ideally, bales should be stored in well-ventilated areas away from sources of moisture and pests.
    • Stacking Configuration: Stack bales in rows with adequate spacing between them to allow for air circulation and reduce the risk of mould or mildew formation. Consider using pallets or elevated platforms to keep bales off the ground and prevent moisture absorption.
    • Rotation: Implement a rotation system for bale storage to ensure that older bales are used first, minimizing the risk of spoilage or nutrient loss over time. This helps maintain feed quality and prevents wastage of stored materials.
    • Inventory Management: Keep track of bale inventory and monitor bale condition regularly to identify any signs of spoilage, mould, or pest infestation. Promptly remove and dispose of damaged or contaminated bales to prevent spread to other stored materials.
  3. Safety:
    • Safe Handling Practices: Train farm personnel on safe bale handling techniques and equipment operation to prevent accidents and injuries during loading, unloading, and stacking activities.
    • Fire Prevention: Minimize fire risks by avoiding the storage of bales near heat sources, electrical equipment, or flammable materials. Implement fire prevention measures such as regular inspection of storage areas and proper disposal of smoking materials.
    • Pest Control: Implement pest control measures to prevent infestation of stored bales by rodents, insects, or moulds. Consider using approved pesticides, baits, or repellents as part of an integrated pest management strategy.

Impact of Balers on Agriculture

Since their invention, balers have revolutionised farming practices, making them more efficient and productive. Here are some of the ways that balers have impacted agriculture:

Improving Farm Productivity

Before balers, farmers had to gather hay and straw by hand, which was a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. With the invention of balers, farmers could compress hay and straw into large round bales, which could be easily transported and stored. This made it possible for farmers to manage larger fields and harvest more crops in less time. Balers also made it easier to feed livestock, as the compressed bales were easier to handle and transport.

Environmental Considerations

Balers have had a positive impact on the environment by reducing waste and improving soil health. With balers, farmers can compress crop residues into bales, which can be used for animal feed or processed into compost and used as a soil amendment. This has helped to reduce waste and improve soil health.

Economic Aspects and Investment

Investing in balers has proven to be a wise decision for many farmers, they have helped to increase productivity and reduce labour costs. Large round bales, which were introduced in the 1960s by Hesston, are now the most popular type of bale.

They can be easily transported and stored, which has helped to reduce transportation costs and increase efficiency. Balers have also helped to reduce the amount of manual labour required for harvesting and transporting crops, which has helped to reduce labour costs.

Cultural and Historical Significance

Balers in the Evolution of Farming Practices

Balers have played a significant role in the evolution of farming practices in the UK. Before the invention of balers, hay was cut and left to dry in the fields before being raked into piles and stored in barns. This was a labour-intensive process that required a lot of manpower.

Once balers were introduced, the process became much more efficient, and the need for manual labour decreased significantly.

With the introduction of balers, farmers were able to produce larger quantities of hay and straw, which they could then use as feed for their livestock. This led to an increase in the number of animals that farmers could keep, which in turn led to an increase in the amount of meat, milk, and other animal products that were available for consumption.

Notable Manufacturers and Innovators

Over the years, there have been many notable manufacturers and innovators in the field of balers. One of the most famous was Lyle Yost, who invented the round baler in the 1940s. This was a significant development, as it allowed farmers to produce fewer bales than the small rectangular bales that had been used previously.

Other notable manufacturers include John Deere, New Holland, and Massey Ferguson, all of whom have played a significant role in the development of balers over the years. Today, there are many different types of balers available, each designed to meet the specific needs of farmers.

The Role of Balers in Modern Agriculture

Today, balers continue to play a crucial role in modern agriculture. They are used to produce bales of hay and straw, which are then used as feed for livestock. They are also used to produce bales of silage, which is a fermented form of animal feed that is made from grass or other crops.

In addition to their use in animal feed production, balers are also used in the production of biofuels. This is because bales of hay and straw can be used as a source of biomass, which can then be converted into fuel. This has led to an increase in the use of balers in recent years, as farmers look for new ways to make use of their crops.