Wire Balers

Wire balers

Bales prior to 1937 were manually wire-tied with two baling wires. Even earlier, the baler was a stationary implement, driven with a tractor or stationary engine using a belt on a belt pulley, with the hay being brought to the baler and fed in by hand. Later, balers were made mobile, with a ‘pickup’ to gather up the hay and feed it into the chamber. These often used air cooled gasoline engines mounted on the baler for power. The biggest change to this type of baler since 1940 is being powered by the tractor through its power take-off (PTO), instead of by a built-in internal combustion engine. In present day production, small square balers can be ordered with twine knotters or wire tie knotters.

Square/wire bale history

Pickup and handling methods

In the 1940s most farmers would bale hay in the field with a small tractor with 20 or less horsepower, and the tied bales would be dropped onto the ground as the baler moved through the field. Another team of workers with horses and a flatbed wagon would come by and use a sharp metal hook to grab the bale and throw it up onto the wagon while an assistant stacks the bale, for transport to the barn. A later time-saving innovation was to tow the flatbed wagon directly behind the baler, and the bale would be pushed up a ramp to a waiting attendant on the wagon. The attendant hooks the bale off the ramp and stacks it on the wagon, while waiting for the next bale to be produced.

Eventually, as tractor horsepower increased, the thrower-baler became possible, which eliminated the need for someone to stand on the wagon and pick up the finished bales. The first thrower mechanism used two fast-moving friction belts to grab finished bales and throw them at an angle up in the air onto the bale wagon. The bale wagon was modified from a flatbed into a three-sided skeleton frame open at the front, to act as a catcher’s net for the thrown bales. As tractor horsepower further increased, the next innovation of the thrower-baler was the hydraulic tossing baler. This employs a flat pan behind the bale knotter. As bales advance out the back of the baler, they are pushed onto the pan one at a time. When the bale has moved fully onto the pan, the pan suddenly pops up, pushed by a large hydraulic cylinder, and tosses the bale up into the wagon like a catapult. The pan-thrower method puts much less stress on the bales compared to the belt-thrower. The friction belts of the belt-thrower stress the twine and knots as they grip the bale, and would occasionally cause bales to break apart in the thrower or when the bales landed in the wagon.

Bales may be picked up from the field and stacked using a self-powered machine called a bale stacker, bale wagon or harobed. There are several designs and sizes. One type picks up square bales which are dropped by the baler with the strings facing upward. The stacker will drive up to each bale, pick it up and set it on a three-bale-wide table (the strings are now facing upwards). Once three bales are on the table, the table lifts up and back, causing the three bales to face strings to the side again; this happens three more times until there are 16 bales on the main table. This table will lift like the smaller one, and the bales will be up against a vertical table. The machine will hold 160 bales (ten tiers); usually there will be cross-tiers near the center to keep the stack from swaying or collapsing if any weight is applied to the top of the stack. The full load will be transported to a barn; the whole rear of the stacker will tilt upwards until it is vertical. There will be two pushers that will extend through the machine and hold the bottom of the stack from being pulled out from the stacker while it is driven out of the barn.

In Britain (if small square bales are still to be used), they are usually collected as they fall out of the baler in a bale sledge dragged behind the baler. This has four channels, controlled by automatic mechanical balances, catches and springs, which sort each bale into its place in a square eight. When the sledge is full, a catch is tripped automatically, and a door at the rear opens to leave the eight lying neatly together on the ground. These may be picked up individually and loaded by hand, or they may be picked up all eight together by a bale grab on a tractor, a special front loader consisting of many hydraulically powered downward-pointing curved spikes. The square eight will then be stacked, either on a trailer for transport, or in a roughly cubic field stack eight or ten layers high. This cube may then be transported by a large machine attached to the three-point hitch behind a tractor, which clamps the sides of the cube and lifts it bodily.

Storage methods

Before electrification occurred in rural parts of the United States in the 1940s, some small dairy farms would have tractors but not electric power. Often just one neighbor who could afford a tractor would do all the baling for surrounding farmers still using horses. To get the bales up into the hayloft, a pulley system ran on a track along the peak of the barn’s hayloft. This track also stuck a few feet out the end of the loft, with a large access door under the track. On the bottom of the pulley system was a bale spear, which is pointed on the end and has retractable retention spikes. A flatbed wagon would pull up next to the barn underneath the end of the track, the spear lowered down to the wagon, and speared into a single bale. The pulley rope would be used to manually lift the bale up until it could enter the mow through the door, then moved along the track into the barn and finally released for manual stacking in tight rows across the floor of the loft. As the stack filled the loft, the bales would be lifted higher and higher with the pulleys until the hay was stacked all the way up to the peak.

When electricity arrived, the bale spear, pulley and track system were replaced by long motorized bale conveyors known as hay elevators. A typical elevator is an open skeletal frame, with a chain that has dull 3-inch (76 mm) spikes every few feet along the chain to grab bales and drag them along. One elevator replaced the spear track and ran the entire length of the peak of the barn. A second elevator was either installed at a 30-degree slope on the side of the barn to lift bales up to the peak elevator, or used dual front-back chains surrounding the bale to lift bales straight up the side of the barn to the peak elevator. A bale wagon pulled up next to the lifting elevator, and a farm worker placed bales one at a time onto the angled track. Once bales arrived at the peak elevator, adjustable tipping gates along the length of the peak elevator were opened by pulling a cable from the floor of the hayloft, so that bales tipped off the elevator and dropped down to the floor in different areas of the loft. This permitted a single elevator to transport hay to one part of a loft and straw to another part.

This complete hay elevator lifting, transport, and dropping system reduced bale storage labor to a single person, who simply pulls up with a wagon, turns on the elevators and starts placing bales on it, occasionally checking to make sure that bales are falling in the right locations in the loft.The neat stacking of bales in the loft is often sacrificed for the speed of just letting them fall and roll down the growing pile in the loft, and changing the elevator gates to fill in open areas around the loose pile. But if desired, the loose bale pile dropped by the elevator could be rearranged into orderly rows between wagon loads.

Usage once in the barn

The process of retrieving bales from a hayloft has stayed relatively unchanged from the beginning of baling. Typically workers were sent up into the loft, to climb up onto the bale stack, pull bales off the stack, and throw or roll them down the stack to the open floor of the loft. Once the bale is down on the floor, workers climb down the stack, open a cover over a bale chute in the floor of the loft, and push the bales down the chute to the livestock area of the barn. Most barns were equipped with several chutes along the sides and in the center of the loft floor. This permitted bales to be dropped into the area where they were to be used. Hay bales would be dropped through side chutes, to be broken up and fed to the cattle. Straw bales would be dropped down the center chute, to be distributed as bedding in the livestock standing/resting areas. Traditionally multiple bales were dropped down to the livestock floor and the twine removed by hand. After drying and being stored under tons of pressure in the haystack, most bales are tightly compacted and need to be torn apart and fluffed up for use.

One recent method of speeding up all this manual bale handling is the bale shredder, which is a large vertical drum with rotary cutting/ripping teeth at the base of the drum. The shredder is placed under the chute and several bales dropped in. A worker then pushes the shredder along the barn aisle as it rips up a bale and spews it out in a continuous fluffy stream of material.