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Gearing Up for Hay and Forage Production

Whether running a custom hay business or producing for your own operation’s needs, hay production requires plenty of time in the field, a fleet of forage equipment, and space to store the finished product—hay bales. Those selling hay can build profitable businesses selling bales to industries and operators who need to feed livestock, but it takes an investment in equipment first.

Hay Equipment

Hay and forage production is just as equipment-intensive as it is labor-intensive. Creating a quality final product means many passes through the field with a variety of different equipment. A compact tractor is the staple of every operation, but mowers, conditioners, hay rakes, balers, and sometimes hay tedders and bale wrappers are also needed. Pay close attention to make sure your tractor has enough engine horsepower to meet the horsepower requirement for each implement.

Growers have options when it comes to equipment. For mowers, mower-conditioners are available as well as sickle bar, drum, and disc mowers. When it comes to rakes, producers have their pick of wheel, parallel, rotary, and belt rakes.

Innovations in equipment are constant. Some of the latest are Hesston’s WR9900 series windrowers that cut, condition, and lay out hay, Caterpillar’s 930M ag handler for stacking bales, New Holland’s FR920 forage harvester that was created to process kernels with ease, and McHale’s Orbital that can wrap up to 120 bales an hour.

Square or Round Baler?

Before purchasing a baler, deciding on round or square bales is necessary. Depending on your operation’s location, one or the other is usually the most popular and will determine what style of baler you invest in. There are also multiple bale sizes to consider.

In 2017, Vermeer debuted the first self-propelled baler to streamline baling with zero-radius turning. The company launched the prototype in an effort to streamline baling like combines and other harvesting equipment has done for years.

The 9 series round balers from John Deere offer forage producers a number of affordable options in the form of a lineup of simple, sturdy balers. Each baler comes ready to net wrap, which means less spoilage and higher quality forage.

Building a Custom Hay Business

All operations with a need for hay have to decide whether to bale themselves or purchase it from a custom baler. There’s good, consistent money to be made producing hay for specific customers.

One Minnesota farm family produces a handful of traditional row crops and also keeps up a custom hay business that serves dairies in surrounding states. The business started when the family found itself with extra hay for sale after feeding its own cattle and eventually transitioned away from livestock and into custom hay production. Because the Michaelsons are able to consistently keep up the quality of their alfalfa and provide quality feed, the farm family has found a dependable market to sell to in the dairy industry.

Growing Quality Hay

Quality hay, like other crops, starts with quality soil. For alfalfa, a forage specialist suggests a soil pH of 6.5 to 7. Choosing a strong seed variety is also critical for success in growing high-quality forage. If you know of any previous issues in the field, take those into consideration when choosing seed.

Scouting hayfields twice a week throughout the growing season should help to combat issues alfalfa hay faces like the alfalfa weevil, the potato leaf hopper, and a number of diseases. On top of those risks, hayfield fires can quickly take out fields of quality hay either during growth via wildfire or when a baler that hasn’t been properly maintained is working in a particularly dry field. Check out these tips to reduce the risk of hayfield fires.

Protecting Hay

Maintaining forage quality once it has been turned into bales requires planning and regular monitoring. Much of what could go wrong once bales are made is dependent on moisture levels of the hay as it’s formed into bales. Hay that is too dry may mean leaf loss and a clear loss in quality. Hay that’s baled too wet could lead to eventual spontaneous combustion, which can cause fires in storage buildings. Investing in a moisture tester may be the ticket to avoiding devastating losses once baling is done.

If you aren’t able to store bales in a shed, try to store them under tarps to protect them from weather. If that’s also not an option, arrange the bales in north-south type rows on a well-drained site. Wrapping bales in stretch wrap plastic has also been shown to work well in protecting exposed bales from the elements.


Post-planting and pre-first cutting, forage producers should get equipment in shape for the long season to come. Checking out power-driven areas and wear, then making repairs is a maintenance necessity. Setting tension on belts and chains is also a must. See this article for a list of what should be done to ready forage harvesting gear for the season.

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