Granted, the hay market has been somewhat of a ticking time bomb this winter, but the sound I heard while baling hay was a loud "tick, tick, tick" that didn't sound like it was on any bomb.
What with the drought this past year, as well as the price of alternative feed ingredients, the hay market has remained pretty strong so far this winter. That's especially true when you consider we haven't been swamped with snow, which tends to create even more hay consumption and demand. One recent auction report from north-central Iowa had two farmers who both really, really wanted a load of round bales at the auction. They proceeded to run the price to $150 per bale. That's less than I sell hay for, but I'm selling a bale that weighs somewhere around 1,400 to 2,100 pounds. The rank amateur who made and consigned those bales had them tipping the scale at 600 pounds each. The math behind that story problem ends up at around $500 per ton for that hay. Getting past the $200 mark used to be quite an achievement. The $300 barrier didn't take long the past few months before a few loads hit it. Now we've blown through $500 on more than one occasion in the last year. It's getting to the point where I'm beginning to wonder where all the tortoises are to create this kind of spendy demand! (See "Scratching a niche.")
So what do you do if you're a hay consumer? Get more efficient with your use. As a seller, there's nothing I love more than driving through the countryside and seeing people feed their critters hay without using any kind of feeder. They just throw a bale out to the beasts and let them have at it. Don't get me wrong, I have no objections to the use of compost as fertilizer for growing plants. I just think there are cheaper sources of compost material than a bale of hay. When there's no feeder around the bale, you can pretty much plan on a third of it or more ending up as compost. Put that same hay in a feeder and you'll cut your losses in half, if not two-thirds or more.
Then there are the other options. You could grind the hay into near-confetti and mix it in with other ingredients. We used to do that when the value of hay was much lower, but the problem is that those giant hay Cuisinarts have not gotten smaller over the years.
Another option is a vertical TMR (total mixed ration) wagon. They're sort of a trapezoid-shaped funnel with a vertical auger or two inside. You can toss in a whole round bale and a few other ingredients and get the whole works mixed up into a homogenous product in a few minutes. They do have some downsides, though. They tend to be big and bulky compared to other feed wagons. Being able to hold and grind a bale means you need a container quite a bit bigger than the bale. Add in the funnel shape and now you've made that monster both taller and wider. The other problem I have with vertical mixers is that your ration has to use an entire round bale in it. That wouldn't be so bad if you made those cute little toy bales like the $500-per-ton guy did, but let's do the math there. Here’s a photo of the lot where I park half of my bales. Take that inventory and multiply it by six. That's what it would take to park my bales if I made 600 pounders instead of 1,800 pounders. Then I'd end up with so many rows of bales that I'd be tempted to set them up in either an avenue and street format, or in a maze where I'd have to run around in my skid loader Pac-man-style to do chores!
Round bales are my preference, so we got ourselves a hay cannon. It's the Teagle 8080WB hay processor. It will take a round bale and grind it into relatively short pieces. Other companies make bale processors, but few of them add the other feature of the Teagle — the rotating directional spout. With that, you can aim the stream of processed material your Teagle spews as it hacks up the bale. Instead of blowing a haze of hay all over the place (primarily directed at the ground) like other models do, with no structure to it whatsoever, the Teagle takes the material from the rotor that chops it up and then feeds it into a rotating fan with a gooseneck hood on it much like a snowblower. You can then kind of control the direction the material goes as it gets chopped up.
I say "kind of," because it's not precise. For instance, if you take a huge glass of water and pour it into the sink, the stream is pretty straight. That's gravity. Now take the same quantity of water and blow it through a straw in the same direction to add some force to the gravity. It maintains its stream fairly well, because gravity is still working, but the stream still spreads out a little. But if you take that 64-oz. Big Gulp of water and heave it up and to the side, you will soon notice that it tends to fan out dramatically, because there's not much pressure behind the water. (My friend and former Medtronic CEO Bill George would say the water lacks leadership. He'll cover the deficiency and how to correct it in his next book, as well as a couple appearances on CNBC.) If you hold a garden hose out and turn it on, the stream of water will stay somewhat straight. Add some pressure to the end of the hose, though, and direction widens out a bit. The Teagle is more or less a garden hose for hay with no sprayer nozzle on the end of it. You can aim it better than heaving a pail of water, but you still can't get precise enough to fill a Mayor-Bloomerg-approved-size cup across the yard.
I was in the middle of Teagling another bale of 2009 hay one day when I heard something. Granted, the hay market has been somewhat of a ticking time bomb this winter, but the sound I heard was a loud "tick, tick, tick" that didn't sound like it was on any bomb. I reversed the apron chain that feeds the bale into the rotor and tried it again. The same ticking sound came back. It was so loud and so consistent that I fully expected to hop out of the cab and be greeted by the ghost of Mike Wallace with that "60 Minutes" clock as background music. “Hello, Mr. Ryan. Mike Wallace. Nice to meet you. Hard at it, I see. Mind if I ask you a couple questions? Did you really think someone would pay you $85 for a ton of this stuff? Really?"
Well, uh, yeah. That was below the market at the time, Mike.
“Really? C'mon!” Mike retorted.
He always gets you with the “C’mon!” response. That's when you know you’re toast.
I snapped out of my “60 Minutes” nightmare and lowered the rear gate on the Teagle. Then I hit the Reverse button on the apron chain that carries the bale away from the rotor. Approximately two-thirds of the bale remained to be chewed up. I climbed inside and rolled the bale out of the processor. That’s when my hand felt something really solid. Granted, Deere & Co. makes a baler that builds a solid bale, but this was too solid to be hay. It turned out to be the skid shoe off one side of my mower-conditioner! The skid shoes act as feet for the machine to stand on as it glides across the field. They keep the cutting mechanism from digging into the dirt. That means they have to be pretty solid. This one certainly was! Let's not even get into the fact that the skid shoe also had to be picked up and fed into (and successfully through) my round baler without incident to end up inside a bale. We'll save that one for a future believe-it-or-not story.
I looked over the skid shoe and immediately saw which side had, um, interfaced with the rotor of the Teagle. Just enough contact had been made to remove the green paint and add a few scratches to it, but not enough had been made to either A) feed it through the rotor and into the gooseneck blower, thereby launching the world's first hay mortar, or B) bring the rotor to a screaming halt as it exploded into a series of metal shards and became the world's first mobile hay shrapnel grenade.
Lucky me, I got by with no explosions and no paramilitary activity. I also got lucky and did not get those few scratches of steel against steel to generate any sparks, what with there being just a tad bit of tinder handy! That would have been an interesting 911 call, I bet.
Dispatcher: “Equipment with bale fire. Jeff Ryan. Okay, got it. [Brief pause.] Yep, that’s our default setting.” (See "Let me get my bearings.")
Two minutes later.
Dispatcher: “The Winneshiek County Sheriff just called. They heard your name on the scanner. If there's cattle out, they assumed you'll be able to get them in without any help, won't you?”
Yeah. That's my default setting.
Guy No. 2