Individual bale identification is a helpful management tool that will be more beneficial when the concept becomes more popular, say Steve Knopf and David Gross.

They're among the first growers to try a new big square baler attachment that stores pertinent information in a microchip attached to each bale. The microchip is inside a radio-frequency identification tag that's wrapped around a twine in the bale chamber. Then a transmitter sends data to the microchip on radio waves.

Included are the field name or number, the date and time it was baled, the high and average moisture contents, the amount of preservative applied, if any, and the bale weight. Tags are read by a hand-held scanner that shows the information on a screen, or the scanner will dock on a loader with the screen visible to the operator, reading up to three bales at a time.

Introduced in fall 2008 by Harvest Tec, Hudson, WI (see our 2008 story, “Quality Assurance”), the Individual Bale Identification System is sold through hay equipment dealers. Jeff Roberts, Harvest Tec president, says about 25 were used on farms last summer, and 25 more have been sold so far this winter.

“I anticipate selling another 50 or so this spring and getting it out more seriously this year,” says Roberts.

Knopf, who works for Carl Blackmer at Old Fort Farm, Livonia, NY, used one on a 3 x 3' baler last summer.

“We put the tagger system on basically as an experiment, and we purchased it,” Knopf reports. “It's worked out well for us overall. There were a few bugs to work through; we expected that.”

Blackmer's operation includes about 2,200 acres of timothy and timothy-alfalfa hay. He switched from conventional bales to big squares in 2006, installing a Steffen Systems conversion system that slices big bales and reties them in compressed 60- to 70-lb packages, mostly for horse clients. Nearly 90% of homegrown hay goes through the converter, plus additional hay is bought, converted and resold.

Knopf says the identification system is a great tool for tracking hay inventory. With hay stored in several barns at multiple locations, keeping track of specific lots used to be challenging.

“We've tried doing maps and keeping a notepad, and that's better than just assuming you're going to remember,” he says. “But as the year goes on and you move hay around, you lose track of what's what.”

Now he can simply point the hand-held scanner at a bale to identify it, and he has a printout that tells him how many bales are in that lot. The system creates lists of bales made in each field, and the lists can be downloaded to a computer. It also can be tied to a GPS receiver so field locations can be put on tags and yield maps generated.

When more growers get individual bale identification systems, buying hay will be less risky, Knopf figures.

“It would be a great advantage to us if a seller came in with a load of hay that was tagged and had a printout that said what the hay is,” he says. “Nobody is purposely deceiving you, but sometimes you get beautiful-looking hay, and when you break it open it's a little dusty. If the tags say the average moisture was 12% when it was baled, the risk drops tremendously.”

For David Gross, the early challenge is getting buyers to pay attention to the tags and the information on them. He manages the hay operation at Spokane Hutterian, a Hutterite colony near Spokane, WA. He had a bale identification system installed on the 4 x 4' baler he uses to put up most of the colony's 1,000 acres of timothy and alfalfa hay.

Gross likes being able to satisfy customers who want to know the hay's moisture content or how much preservative was used.

“If somebody has a question, we take the hand-held reader and just walk along the bales, get a reading and show them what's actually in the bales,” he says.

But most of his hay goes to the export market, where record-keeping requirements are becoming more stringent. He hopes exporting companies will eventually pay higher prices for identified bales.

“We need another year of getting these tags out to see how they're going to be received on the other end,” says Gross. “This is new to exporters also, so they're taking a look at it to see if there's a use for it in their market.”

The baler-mounted apparatus costs about $5,000, and the scanner kit, including hand-held and loader-mounted antennae, sells for $1,900. Rolls of tags cost 60¢/tag.

For more on the system, see a local New Holland, Agco or Case IH dealer.