More sophisticated, efficient and powerful. That, in a nutshell, is what forage equipment has evolved to compared with what was on dealer lots 25 years ago.
In honor of Hay & Forage Grower’s 25th anniversary, we asked University of Wisconsin ag engineer Kevin Shinners to reminisce about where hay and forage tools were a quarter of a century ago. He also discusses what effect their development has had on the industry and what the future may bring.

Forage Harvesters
“The big trend with forage harvesters over the last 25 years has been the wane of the pull-type and the growth of the self-propelled,” says Shinners.

“Along with that, there has been a change in the business structure in that we’re seeing more and more forage being harvested by custom harvesters. It’s hard for smaller farmers to justify the expense of those big machines, so the best way to get to that productivity and technology is to hire a custom harvester.”

Forage harvesters today offer a lot of technology not available 25 years ago, he continues. Just in the last 10-15 years, moisture sensors, guidance systems, auto-control of length of cut, rock detection and yield monitors have become readily available on harvesters.

Crop processing rolls on harvesters began being offered about 15 years ago. “If you went back to 1985, nobody processed corn silage in North America. Today it’s almost unheard of that people don’t harvest corn silage using crop processing rolls to try to break up that kernel and cob. That’s a big change in that business.”

Crop processors are needed today because more and more corn silage is being used in the dairy diet, Shinners says.

“We needed to do something to try to get that kernel and that cob broken open. You couldn’t even imagine that you would build and sell a forage harvester today without a crop processor.”

As the industry moved from tower silos to bunker and bag silos, it also started harvesting with longer lengths of cut, a move toward feeding less dry hay and more silage. That way, more effective fiber must come from silage in the ration.

Forage harvesters of the future probably won’t change much in the way they harvest crop. Yet Shinners predicts big changes in the machines’ engines to meet emissions requirements. “That’s going to add cost and complexity to the machine.”

Engine power will continue to escalate, although probably not at the speed it has this past decade. “It all comes down to labor availability and number of machines that you need to service and support your business, especially if you’re a custom harvester. If you can do the job with one machine instead of two, that’s one less person you have to manage.”

Another big change in forage harvesting has been the development of the windrow merger. In 1985, these machines were almost non-existent, and the first machines were very small. Now large mergers can match the capacity of the large forage harvester, costing well over $100,000 each.

Cutting Equipment
A quarter-century ago, just a handful of North American manufacturers were dabbling with disc cutterbar mower-conditioners. Today, the number of sickle machines being sold has dwindled and a majority of farmers cut with discs.

“The reason for that is really simple. They have much higher capacity and it’s so much easier to cut under difficult conditions with those machines than it is with sickles. It’s all about trying to get maximum productivity.”

The other big change, happening in the past five to seven years, he estimates, is the growth of multiple-platform mower-conditioners. “We call these machines wide-area mowers, triple mowers – there are lots of different names for them. But it’s the concept of trying to again maximize your cutting productivity while minimizing the labor associated with it.”

But there have been only incremental improvements in the way forage is dried in the field, Shinners says. “We have some better roll systems available to us, but it’s a disappointment, quite frankly, that we haven’t been able to make a substantial difference in the time it takes us to dry hay and forage crops.”

Balers
Large round balers have been around since before the 1970s, but, 25 years ago, net wrap was just being introduced as an alternative to twine wrapping. “That has now grown to be a significant fraction of the market. Putting net wrap on bales – there are so many reasons why that’s a good idea: faster productivity in the field, saving more leaves in the field, and the leaves make a great thatch that provides better weathering capability for that bale when you store it outdoors.”

Net-wrap systems have also improved – they’re more productive and new materials help store bales better.

Since 1985, the round baler business has become more sophisticated, Shinners says. “These balers have really become more productive. Their pickups are wider and more aggressive. They fill the bale chamber better and start bales much better than they ever did. They wrap faster and eject bales faster. They have better bale monitors that can monitor and control performance of the baler quite well.”

All those improvements allow a lot of hay to go through balers in a short time.

“Round balers are the dominant way hay is put up in North America for several reasons: The fact that you can store the bales outside, they’re relatively low-cost machines, and they’re simple and very productive.”

Wrapping round bales to produce baleage was a system not widely considered in 1985, the ag engineer says. Now preserving high-quality forage by wrapping is common practice in many parts of North America.

Large square balers were just coming into the marketplace 25 years ago. “Hesston pioneered this product and was essentially the only manufacturer in 1985. And these machines were found almost exclusively in the Western commercial hay business. Now they are widely used throughout North America in a variety of sizes to meet local market needs. The reasons for the growth are simple: They offer high productivity, producing dense bales that transport economically. Again, it’s the constant drive for greater productivity and efficiency.”

Large round and square balers use sophisticated technology, with moisture sensors and control systems that make uniform, dense bales. Balers will become even more sophisticated in the future and universal monitors on tractors will offer “seamless” communication between the two, he says.

Bale cutters on round and large square balers, to help size material better for TMRs, were also developed in the past quarter century.

The Future
Shinners has a wish list of forage equipment or systems he’s hoping will be developed over the next 25 years.

Top of that list is a way to shorten field drying of forages. “If we could develop faster drying systems so that you could truly have a single-day forage harvesting system, then alfalfa would start to compete better with corn silage in a dairy ration.

Over the last 25 years, we have worked hard to meet this goal, but have not made substantial progress. Chat with any hay or forage producers and they will invariably talk about crop ruined by the weather. We’ll never take weather out of the picture, but we need to make big advances in our equipment to speed the drying process to reduce the risk of weather-related losses.”

Such a system has to be cost-effective. Artificially drying forages isn’t economically feasible, he adds. “We have to use the sunlight hitting the field to dry our crops; artificial drying will only meet niche needs.”

No. 2 on his list: Very accurate and cost-effective hay moisture sensors. “We haven’t cracked this nut, either – a really good, robust, cost-effective way to measure moisture content in the field when we’re making hay. Every decision we make about how we harvest, store and feed our hay, it all comes down to moisture content. Management is so much easier when we have accurate inputs.”

Another goal: Lower energy expenditures for making chopped forage. Forage harvesters are extremely expensive with large engines that use a lot of fuel. “If we could design and develop new equipment that would harvest forages as quickly as we can today but with significantly less energy, that would reduce the cost of the machine and input costs.”

An important improvement with round bales would be a cost-effective way to store forages that currently go to waste because they’re stored outside and damaged by the elements.

Bale size is another area that could use some creativity, Shinners stresses. “For example, John Deere has an 8 x 8’ cotton baler. Is that something we should be considering for hay crops?”

Finally, he’d like to see a merging of hay and forage equipment with the emerging biomass market within the next 10-15 years.

“If we came back and had this same conversation in 10 years, I’m pretty confident that there’s going to be a lot more biomass harvested and more energy produced by biomass. And I think hay and forage equipment will play a pretty significant role in that endeavor.”