This article was written by Pat Goodwin of Tractor Tools Direct. This article does not imply an endorsement by the Acreage Living newsletter of Tractor Tools Direct. However, this information is useful for small farm owners looking to invest in their own haying equipment.
You operate a small farm, own a compact tractor and have decided you want to make your own hay. Maybe you're tired of paying high prices for hay. Maybe you're constantly disappointed by the quality of hay available. Maybe you're fed up with the contract hay baler who doesn't think your hay field is a priority.
Ultimately, you don't want to depend upon others for quality hay to feed your animals. You know you can do better but you've got a small tractor, and everyone tells you it won't be able to do the job. The key to success is selecting the right equipment for your tractor and your property. Here we take you through the step-by-step process of how to select the best equipment for your needs. Let's get started!
Selecting the Right Hay Equipment
Know Your Tractor
Before you shop for equipment, make sure you know the specifications of your tractor. Its horsepower rating and weight are the most important specs, but in some cases you may need to know the width or other details. Your tractor's manual should have this information.
If you don't have the manual, tractordata.com is a great website you can use to look up specs for almost any tractor.
Choosing the Right Hay Mower
Hay mowers come in all shapes and sizes, from mini sickle bar mowers to the largest trailed mower-conditioners and even self-propelled machines. For the sake of brevity, we will concentrate here on hay mowers that are meant to be mounted to your tractor's 3-point hitch. These machines cover the needs of 99% of people that have a compact or subcompact tractor.
Selecting the Type
There are three primary styles of hay mowers: sickle bar, disc. and drum. Each has Its advantages and disadvantages. In order to choose the mower that will work best for your situation, first fit the mower to the size of your tractor and then determine how you will be using it.
Sickle Bar Mowers
The sickle bar mower was the first mechanical mower and was originally pulled by horses. The design is much the same today as it was then. The mower works with a reciprocating action, moving triangular blades back and forth between stationary guard fingers. Each back and forth action shears off any grass or vegetation that is between the stationary fingers. The action is the same as a set of barber's clippers cutting hair. This type of mower can be used to cut hay as well as for other general mowing duties. The best sickle bar mowers currently being produced uses a double action where the guard moves in the opposite direction from the blades. This doubles the effective blade speed, and also greatly reduces machine vibration, making it quieter, more comfortable to use, and longer lasting. An example of this type of mower is the DCM ltalia 150, a 5 foot mower.
Though a sickle bar mower’s design is a bit antiquated, its advantages are:
- Requires little horsepower. If you have a very low power tractor of 15 horsepower or less, this option will really be your only choice. Though there are very small drum mowers, if you have an older compact utility tractor like a Kubota 5000 or 6000 series, a sickle bar mower will be your best bet.
- Lighter weight. If your tractor is very lightweight or has very little front weight, a sickle bar is the lightest weight hay mower and therefore your best (and safest) option.
- Angled mowing capability. If you are mowing ditch banks, sickle bars are the only hay mower style specifically designed to work well below (or above) horizontal. Some mowers even allow you to work in the vertical position for trimming hedges or trail edges.
- Less motion = less dust. While disc and drum mowers create a vortex of moving air across the blades, sickle bars have relatively little motion. As a result, less dirt will be cast into the air and your newly cut hay.
That being said, the disadvantages of a sickle bar mower include:
- Forward speed. A sickle bar mower's forward speed is much slower than disc and drum mowers. They can mow a wide swath, but maximum speeds are only about half of other designs.
- Clogging. They become easily dogged when working in very dense, lodged, or already cut material. Clogging is also more of a problem when blades begin to get dull.
- Blade repair. When blades become dull, sharpening or replacing them can be time consuming and expensive.
- Repair expense. Damage due to hitting an unknown obstruction can be expensive to fix.
Disc mowers were invented as a logical progression from the sickle bar design. Instead of blades moving back and forth on the cutter bar, they are mounted on several small discs that rotate at high speeds, mounted on top of the cutter bar. Generally there are two free-swinging blades bolted to each disc. The discs are driven either by a shaft or gears that are inside the cutter bar. Like with a sickle bar, the cutter bar essentially slides along the ground, which is what controls the cutting height.
The advantages of a disc mower are:
- No clogging. Disc mowers handle thick and lodged hay with ease.
- High cutting speeds. If you have the horsepower, there is almost no limit to how fast you can drive through the field. Speeds of up to 15 mph or more are feasible, though very few tractors can do this safely.
- Ease of transition. Hydraulic lift allows you to go from working to transport and back again without leaving the tractor seat. This is a time-saving feature when mowing several small fields.
There are some situations, however, when you might want to steer clear of a disc mower. Their disadvantages:
- Need for hydraulics. If your tractor does not have hydraulics, you won't be able to lift the cutter bar vertically to get through gates and other narrow areas. Until recently this one factor kept many people from choosing a disc mower. As of this writing, there is only one exception: the brand Galfre offers a 4-disc mower, the Model165, with a cutting width of 5’ 5” that does not require hydraulics to operate.
- Weight. You have the horsepower and the hydraulics, but your tractor is lightweight. This can be a safety hazard because of the much heavier cutter bar compared to a sickle bar mower. When the mower is in the vertical transport position it can tip the whole tractor over unexpectedly.
- Expense of repair. If you frequently mow in places where you might hit something solid like a boulder, old fence post, etc. Disc mowers, when damaged, can be extremely expensive to repair.
Drum mowers, though widely used in Europe for 40 years or more, are just recently becoming a popular choice in the us. Drum mowers have a significantly different design from the other two types of mowers. Instead of powering the cutting blades from the cutter bar, the "drums” of a drum mower are powered from a gearbox above. The standard drum mower has two counter-rotating drums. Each drum is essentially a cylinder of 10.14 inches in diameter and length of 15-24 inches, with a large disc attached to the bottom. Depending on the model, either 3 or 4 free-swinging blades are attached to each of these discs. When in operation, the entire drum/disc/blade assembly rotates. This heavy rotating mass creates a great deal of momentum, which helps to power the mower through thick spots in the field. On the bottom of this assembly is a dish which is mounted on ball bearings. This dish does not rotate with the rest of the drum assembly, but rather slides along the ground and can rotate freely in either direction depending on the surface it slides over.
As a drum mower moves through the field, the drums are rotating toward each other, which causes the cut crop to pass between the drums and be dropped in a windrow behind the mower. This windrowing effect eventually must be spread back out with a tedder or rake In order for the hay to dry properly. This has been the major drawback of drum mowers up to this point. One company, Galfre, has solved this problem with their “Black Hole” conditioning system. This system ejects the cut hay out the rear of the mower in a spread-out and fluffed manner, allowing the hay to dry where it sits. This potentially saves an additional trip through the field with a rake or tedder and can shorten drying time by up to a day.
Drum mowers are designed to be very robust, simple machines. They have only a fraction of the parts of either sickle bars or disc mowers. They also can be run with modest horsepower. Once the drums are up to speed, they do not draw a lot of power from the tractor to keep spinning.
Drum mower advantages are:
- No hydraulic requirement. You do not have to have hydraulics on your tractor. For transport, the drums swing to the rear of the tractor manually.
- Durability. Drum mowers are easily the most rugged of the hay mower types. They rarely sustain damage even from striking an unmovable object. This makes them a great choice for contract cutting in unfamiliar fields or for mowing unruly pastures.
- High ground speeds. A drum mower can be run at even higher speeds than a disc mower, and double the speed of a sickle bar.
- Low power consumption. This feature is important particularly witf1 older utility tractors of modest horsepower.
Drum mower disadvantages are:
- Contour mowing. Because the drums are very heavy, it is not recommended to hang the mower out over a downward slope. Drum mowers also do not pivot enough to effectively follow extreme contours like a sickle bar will.
- Weight. The drum mower's heavy weight can be detrimental for tractors with light front ends. Drum mowers are very heavy in relation to other mower types of the same width. This can make maneuverability and transport difficult if there is not sufficient weight holding the front wheels of the tractor down.
- Windrowing. Since most drum mowers windrow the cut crop, it will not dry in the field without being spread out or double-raked. Galfre drum mowers are the exception to this rule. Their conditioning system fluffs and spreads the cut crop for faster drying time.
Choosing the Right Hay Tedder
A tedder is a machine that spreads and turns over loose hay in the field. This action exposes the hay on the underside of a pile to air and sunlight, speeding up the drying process. Tedders use a rotary motion to grab the hay with spinning tines and cast it out the back of the machine.
Heavy hay in humid climates can dry faster by teddlng. It is also an indispensable machine for spreading hay out to dry after a rain. Although some farmers get by without a tedder, it is smart to have a machine that can do this important job if and when you need it. Furthermore, if you have a conventional drum mower other than a Galfre with a conditioning system, the windrow created by the mower will not dry unless spread cut or turned over.
Tedders come in all sizes, from 6 feet wide to over 20 feet wide for large tractors. They don't use much horsepower, so most any tractor with a PTO can run them. They come in both tow behind designs and 3-point connection. The advantage of the 3-point connection is that they can be lifted over obstacles like windrows, and they can be more easily transported. The disadvantage of the 3-point connection is that some tractors may have trouble lifting them.
Some rakes will double as tedders, to varying degrees of success. Wheel rakes can flip a windrow over, or can agitate hay that is spread in the field, but they tend to leave clumps of hay that don't dry well. Some machines are specifically built to convert between raking and tedding. However, most take a great deal of work to switch from one to the other, costing you valuable time, usually when you don't have it.
One rake design for use as a tedder is the belt rake. Switching from rake to tedder with this machine only takes a few seconds, and they truly spread the hay evenly as a tedder should. If you don't want to buy a separate tedder, the belt rake is a good option.
Choosing the Right Hay Rake
In order to bale hay, it must be raked into windrows. It is a common misconception that hay can be baled directly from the windrow or swath created by the hay mower. There are a few reasons why this will not work. First of all, in most climates, hay will not dry well unless fluffed, flipped or turned by a tedder and/or rake. Secondly, the path left by the hay mower will generally not be conducive to pick up by a baler, resulting in a lot of missed hay. Thirdly, you can normally rake at least two mower swaths into one windrow for baling, resulting in fewer passes across the field with the baler and better quality, more consistently dense bales.
The choices for hay rakes are many. Different regions of the country seem to prefer different styles of rakes. The four most prominent styles are wheel rakes, parallel bar rakes, rotary rakes and belt rakes.
These rakes are built for speed and productivity when handling dry hay. Wheel rakes are simple machines that require minimal adjustments for proper operation. The economical ground drive simplifies operation and reduces cost. However, its direct contact with the ground can cause dirt and stones to be introduced into the hay, decreasing overall quality. Furthermore, the windrow will not be as light and fluffy as those produced by rotary rakes or belt rakes. This means that only minimal drying will occur once the hay has been raked, so raking cannot occur until the hay is fully cured. Also, using a 3-point mounted wheel rake takes some practice, especially if your field has a lot of curves or corners. Wheel rakes are physically large, so they take up a lot of space when stored. Even with these drawbacks, wheel rakes are very popular due to their low cost of purchase and maintenance.
Parallel Bar Rakes
Called by many different names in different regions of the U.S., these machines are relatively simple, with a design that dates back over 100 years. However, this type of rake is being replaced by other rake designs. Rotary rakes and belt rakes are similarly-priced and have additional benefits, such as the ability to produce fluffy windrows in all crop conditions. Wheel rakes are a more economical choice and offer similar raking quality to parallel bar rakes. Though many of these old rakes are still in use throughout the U.S., if you are considering a new rake purchase, another design will likely suit your needs better and provide you with more versatility.
These powered rakes create a uniform and fluffy windrow, which allows crops to dry faster. The gentle rotary-raking action minimizes leaf loss and provides a uniform windrow for good bale formation. These rakes are capable of handling both wet forage and dry hay, giving them greater versatility than wheel rakes. A rotary rake's mechanical drive enables to move heavy, wet crops. It also keeps the tines from contacting the ground, minimizing the amount of contamination raked into the crop. This results in higher-quality feed. Rotary rakes come in a wide variety of sizes for just about any size of tractor. These machines are easily maneuverable and closely follow changing field contours for clean raking. They also can be either 3-point mounted or trailed, allowing them to be used by most tractors with a PTO.
Belt rakes have all the advantages of a rotary rake. They can handle both wet and dry forage; they make a fluffy, consistent windrow; the tines do not touch the ground, reducing contamination of the forage; and they come in a wide variety of sizes.
Belt rakes, however, have a number of advantages over rotary rakes. For the same raking width, belt rakes are much more compact in size, making them much easier to use and store. Their compactness and lighter weight also makes them easier for your tractor to lift, making transport and navigation of rough terrain simpler. They are available in a wider range of working widths, from over 10 feet down to 5 feet making them ideal for working in tight spaces like orchards and pine plantations.
The versatility of a belt rake cannot be matched by any other type of rake. Going from rake to tedder is as easy as removing the hay stop and making a wheel adjustment, requiring only a few seconds and no tools. Lowering the rake with a simple adjustment of the wheels allows the tines to aggressively contact the ground, which is great for dethatching lawns or preparing a seedbed for planting. The smaller sizes also make terrific leaf rakes, further increasing their value on the small farm.
The belt rake is also the easiest of the rake types to use. Because it is so compact and operates directly behind the tractor, the operator spends less time turned around checking to see where his rake actually is. And because it is powered by the tractor PTO, it continues to run while stationary, or when backing up, allowing you to use the rake in reverse in tight spaces. It also does a better job around corners and will not pile up hay like a wheel rake when turning. Thus you will end up with a straighter, fluffier, more consistent windrow that dries better and is easier to follow with a baler.
Choosing the Right Baler
When it comes to choosing a baler, there are many choices. Even within the various categories of balers there are important distinctions. For the purpose of this discussion, we will concentrate on compact round balers and square balers, as they are well-suited for compact and subcompact tractors. Most small farmers do not have a large enough tractor in either weight or horsepower to consider a big round baler or big square baler. Information on this equipment is readily available elsewhere. This guide will help those with compact and subcompact tractors determine which baler is the best choice. Figure 5, near the end of this section, summarizes the different criteria for choosing the right baler for your small tractor operation.
Mini Round Baler
The word is spreading about mini round balers, also called roto-balers. Once a rare oddity, many small farmers are finding that they are the best choice for getting their hay in the barn. The compact round baler works on the same principle as its bigger cousin, rolling the hay inside a chamber until it reaches a certain size, and then wrapping the bale with either twine or net and ejecting it out the rear of the machine.
The size of a mini round bale is roughly the same as the small square bales most people are used to seeing. They generally weigh 40-55 pounds and can be easily lifted by one person.
The mini round baler can be connected to the tractor either by the 3-point hitch or by a drawbar. For most small farmers, the drawbar connection is the better choice. Not only is connection to the tractor much easier, but drawbar connection does not require you to lift the baler off the ground when turning corners. Many tractors are not capable of lifting something this heavy, so turning corners could be a problem with a 3-point mounted baler.
Another possibility with drawbar connection is the option of running the baler out to the side of the tractor. This feature gives you improved visibility of the baler's pickup, and also prevents hay from getting hung up on the underside of your tractor. This is extremely helpful with larger windrows and/or short tractors.
Another feature to look for with a mini round baler is whether it has gathering wheels on the sides of the pickup. Because of their diminutive size, their actual pickup width is only about 30 inches. This requires you to either make very small windrows, or miss a lot of hay. With gathering wheels, the effective pickup width is increased by half again as much. That means you can rake a bigger windrow, reducing the number of passes through the field with both your rake and your baler.
Most mini round balers also are available with the option of wrapping the bale in netting rather than string. There are a few advantages to net wrap. First, the binding process is much faster with net wrap, since the bale only has to tum 2 to 3 times rather than 8 to 12 in order to be wrapped. That means you are stopped for a shorter period of time while the bale is being wrapped, increasing production rate by 25% or more. Second, net wrap provides excellent protection to the bale against rain. Studies have shown that net wrap bales left outdoors for extended periods still only have spoilage in the first inch of the bale. This means the urgency of getting the bales out of the field and in the bam is reduced. Third, if the bales will be handled multiple times, net wrap will hold the bale together better, with less material loss.
The main advantage of twine wrap is economy. Mini round balers use standard twine which is readily available at most farm stores and is fairly inexpensive. The cost per bale with twine is around 1o cents versus around 30 cents for net wrap. One other advantage of twine wrap is for the farmer who wants to leave the bales in the field for grazing animals to eat through the winter. This used to be a common practice for farmers who baled with the Allis-Chalmers Roto-baler. The bales from the last baling of the season would be left spread across the field. Animals grazing in the field could nudge the bales to roll them over, exposing fresh hay. Natural sisal twine was used, which rotted off the bale over time, allowing the grazing animals to get to the interior of the bale. This practice would not be feasible with square bales, which would spoil much more quickly if left in the field as they absorb and trap moisture.
Advantages of the mini round baler are:
- Very low horsepower requirement. A mini round baler needs only around 15 horsepower to operate.
- Lighter weight. Round balers weigh much less than square balers. This means they are safer to operate on hills, and tractors of any size can easily pull them.
- Simpler design. Round balers are simpler machines than square balers, with fewer adjustments required and fewer parts to break.
- Smoother operation. Square balers “kick” up to 90 times per minute. On a small tractor this constant jerking motion can be somewhat fatiguing.
- Small size. A mini round baler will actually fit in the back of a pickup truck. In storage it will take up about a quarter as much space as a square baler.
- Better weather resistance. If there is any chance the bales may stay in the field for any extended period of time, mini round bales will hold up much better to rain and dew. Net wrap provides an even higher level of protection.
- Lower output capacity. Because of the smaller pickup of a round baler and the need to stop when tying a bale, production rate with a mini round baler will only be about 1/3 to ½ what is possible with a square baler.
- Marketability. If you sell hay, you may find that your customers, who are accustomed to square balers, will not like the round bales. Practically speaking there is no difference, but people tend to stick with what they know.
- Stacking. These mini round bales actually stack well. But they will never stack as tight as a stack of square bales. This really only makes a difference if you are needing to stack 15 or 20 feet high.
The first machines that baled hay baled square bales. Though first a stationary machine, the square baler eventually evolved in the late 1930s into the machine we know today. Since the International Harvester square baler was mass-produced in the 1940s, the design of the square baler has changed very little. The basic concept is still the same, with tines that pick up the loose hay and feed it into a chamber, where a plunger moves back and forth, compressing the hay into a rectangular chute. From there twine or wire is wrapped around the compressed hay and periodically tied off and cut, and the process continues. The tying mechanism of a baler is a wonder to behold, even 70+ years after its invention.
Square balers can work quickly and continuously, dropping a new bale in the field as often as every 10 seconds or less. It only takes one afternoon to have as many as 1000 bales or more spread out across a hay field. Getting the bales in the barn becomes a high priority at this point. Square bales left in the field overnight will tend to soak up dew and moisture from the ground. Getting them dry enough to stack in the barn the next day can take time. For every hour that square bales sit in the field you are also risking a rain storm. Square bales that get rained on can be completely ruined. There is nothing more disheartening than having a field full of ruined square bales, that now weigh 100 pounds each, and knowing you have to get them off the field and piled somewhere.
Most standard square balers on the market require 35 horsepower at your tractor’s PTO, and a minimum tractor weight of around 3000 pounds. That means that they cannot be run with today’s compact tractors. Abbriata square balers, however, can be operated with tractors of as little as 16 PTO horsepower and weighing as little as 2000 pounds. On flat ground, even lighter weight tractors are sufficient.
Abbriata makes square balers in 3 sizes. The smallest of the three, the Mini/S, has a total width of only 59 inches, making it the narrowest baler in the compact square baler class. The narrow width is great if you have gates or trees through which you need to navigate. Requiring only 16 PTO horsepower, almost any tractor can power it.
The Abbriata Mini is a slightly wider baler, with a pickup width of 42 inches, 6 inches wider than the Mini/S. This pickup width is wide enough for most windrows, yet still only requires 17 PTO horsepower to operate. At a total width of 66 inches, it will still fit through a 6-foot gate.
The Abbriata M60 Super has the widest pickup width in the compact baler class at a full 53 inches. That means you can make larger windrows, resulting in fewer trips through the field and more consistent bale density. And the M60 Super can bale up to 400 bales per hour, on par with domestic square balers on the market.
A square baler has the following advantages:
- High baling capacity. Square balers never have to stop to wrap or tie a bale, so are able to bale a maximum tonnage in a given period of time.
- Easy-to-handle bales. Square bales are the easiest shape to stack, and with an average weight of around 40 pounds for an Abbriata square bale, are easy to lift and move around.
- Resale. If you are selling your hay, most customers will prefer the familiar shape and easy-feeding flakes of a square bale.
The disadvantages of a square baler are:
- Weight. Square balers are quite heavy compared to a mini round baler. If you are baling steep slopes or have a very small tractor, a square baler’s weight can become hazardous.
- Bales can’t be rained on. Square bales have no resistance to moisture, acting like a sponge in wet conditions.
- Mechanically complicated. Though a properly maintained square baler will run for years without any adjustments needed, a square baler must be carefully and properly set up and timed to work properly. Damage can occur to a baler that is mis-timed.
As with any farm equipment, practicing proper farm safety measures are crucial. For more information regarding on-farm safety, visit https://www.abe.iastate.edu/extension-and-outreach/agricultural-health-safety/.
Pat Goodwin at Tractor Tools Direct suggests that in addition to the above information on selecting the right hay equipment for your operation, there are other important questions to ask yourself prior to any purchase.
1. Is the equipment in stock? Where can it be purchased?
2. Will the equipment need to be shipped? From where? Costs for shipping?
3. Are parts for the equipment readily available and in stock?
4. Is the company an experienced retailer of the equipment?
5. Is there a manual? Is there a parts book?
The full Buyer's Guide to Hay Equipment can be found on the Tractor Tools Direct website at https://tractortoolsdirect.com/buyers-guide/.