Andy Van Dyken and Greg Marlatt bought high-density balers last year to cash in on the handling- and shipping-cost advantages of heavier bales.

But they like how the balers perform when making lighter bales, too. At lower densities, both growers say they can make more-uniform bales faster than before, with less stress on the balers.

Van Dyken and his family chose a Krone Big Pack 1290 HDP for their Toston, MT, crop-and-livestock operation. Introduced in 2008, it makes bales 20-25% denser than bales from a standard Big Pack 1290, and a new high-speed version has 20% more capacity, says Kurt Stone, Krone territory product manager.

Marlatt, of Wellton, AZ, bought a Challenger LB34B XD baler. It and the almost-identical Hesston 2170XD were introduced by Agco in 2011, and 2012 was the first full-production year. They can make bales up to 15% denser than bales from the same models without the extra-density feature, says Dean Morrell, the company’s hay and forage product marketing manager. Their bales are lighter than bales made by the Krone machine in some conditions, says Morrell.

The three 3 x 4’ balers have longer bale chambers, heavier frames and bigger, stronger components than standard balers and are priced $15,000-20,000 higher.

Marlatt grows about 600 acres of irrigated alfalfa in a 3,000-acre cropping operation that also includes cotton, wheat, lettuce and a number of seed crops. His diverse hay clientele includes exporters who want heavy bales so shipping containers can be loaded to capacity. But the bales must be less than 14% moisture to ship safely. He says one exporter quit buying high-density bales because they were causing container fires. That exporter now buys lighter bales and compresses them prior to shipping.

Before making high-density bales for export last summer, Marlatt dried the hay an extra day in the field to reduce the chance of green slugs. He baled at 12% moisture, making 7- to 7½’-long bales weighing 1,600 lbs.

A few other clients want heavy bales and a few want light ones, but most don’t care about the weight. So Marlatt reduces the density -- that way the baler doesn’t have to work quite as hard. This winter he’s making 8’-long bales weighing 1,400-1,500 lbs.

“I could make an 1,800- to 2,000-lb bale, but I don’t want to,” he says.

While the export market played a role in his decision to buy the baler, it wasn’t the determining factor.

“We decided that, even if we decided not to sell to export anymore, across the board it would give us a little niche that not very many other people had.”

It paid off last summer, when straw was in short supply because large amounts of it were used as mulch on slopes scorched by wildfires. Marlatt baled his wheat straw into heavy packages that could be hauled economically, while other growers struggled to get enough weight on trucks.

“I was able to pull 200-300 lbs more (into each bale) than almost everyone else,” he says. “That gave us a niche above other balers that determined it was worth the extra money.”

Van Dyken, who runs Thousand Hills Angus with his parents and brother, baled 400 acres of straw with the 1290 HDP last summer, packing 1,800 lbs of it into each bale. That was the only time he used the baler at its density limit. During three cuttings of 850 irrigated alfalfa acres, it was set at 60% of load capacity and made 1,500-lb bales “without even trying,” says Van Dyken.

“It bales really nice, square bales,” he adds. “The bales are very consistent. If you set that baler at 8’, they’re all 8’.”

Their weight is consistent, too, making it easy to load trucks to their weight limit. The Van Dykens traded a 4 x 4’ baler that made 1,800-lb bales for the 3 x 4’ machine and get more weight on a truck because they stack them three-high instead of two-high.

About 80% of their hay is sold; the rest is fed to their registered cattle. For feeding, Van Dyken says the bale flakes hold together better than flakes from the old baler, and fewer leaves are lost.

High-density balers require heavier twine (at least 550-lb knot strength) to prevent breakage. “It’s a little more expensive, but you’re fitting more hay into each bale, so you’re using less twine,” says Van Dyken.

He and Marlatt were pleased with their balers’ performance, and with the support they got from the manufacturers and dealers.

“We broke one spring last year, and it was covered under warranty,” Van Dyken reports. “We just called the parts house, and it was on our doorstep within 24 hours, like they said it would.”

“It’s first-generation, so we expected some hiccups,” Marlatt says of his LB34B XD. “There were a few hiccups here and there, but they were Johnny-on-the-spot to get the parts and get me going again, so I really didn’t have much downtime.”

Using high-density balers to make slightly heavier alfalfa bales makes sense, says Stone. Denser bales need less storage space and hold their shape better, so they’re more stackable. For most growers, though, alfalfa bales made by standard balers are plenty heavy, says the product manager.

Making very dense alfalfa bales doesn’t work well, because the hay has to be so dry that too many leaves are lost, Morrell points out. He and Stone agree that high-density balers are best-suited for lighter-weight forages such as grass hay, straw and other crop residues. Many were used last fall to bale corn stover destined for Midwestern cellulosic ethanol plants.

“This year we’ll have about 30 units at one location operating on corn stover,” says Morrell.

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