Clayton Geralds marvels when another grower can just touch and smell hay to figure out whether it’s ready to bale.

The Munfordville, KY, grower readily admits he doesn’t have that kind of talent. He relies on hay moisture meter readings coupled with nearly a decade of experience in reading those results to produce top-quality hay – 80,000 small squares each year – for horse-owner clients.

The meter sensors, mounted in balers’ bale chambers, provide readings to be used as a gauge and not as hard fact, he says. “There are skeptics who say, ‘Well, they’re not accurate. When our moisture tester says it’s 18%, it’s really 16% or 21%.’

“My answer? I don’t care. I need to know at what level hay will keep and what level it won’t so I know when I can bale and when I can’t.” In other words, he has figured out which readings signal when it’s best to bale specific types of hay – without worrying about matching an actual moisture level. Even so, the readings he does use look pretty reasonable according to university recommendations.

“I know if I’m baling pure alfalfa hay and it’s below 18%, I can stick it in the barn and never worry about it,” says Geralds. If he’s looking to bale an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix, average readings have to be below 16%; with straight grass, he won’t bale if moisture results are above 12-13%.

His meters test moisture levels continually, giving an average for each bale. Results from microwave hay tests, in comparison, take too long and aren’t realistic, he says.

“How accurate are you at picking out one handful of hay in a 20-acre field that’s perfectly representative of the whole field? You can’t be – nobody can. That’s why I think you have to have a moisture tester that tests it all as you go.”

Moisture meter accuracy can be density-dependent, says Kevin Shinners, a University of Wisconsin ag engineer.

“The sensors measure the quantity of water in the sensing zone. For a given-moisture hay, as bale density increases, more water is placed in the sensing zone and the higher the moisture reading. If the density of the product is changing a lot from what they’ve calibrated the sensor at, then the accuracy can be less than we might want.”

“It amazes me that more people don’t buy them,” says Geralds, who grows alfalfa, alfalfa-grass mixes and timothy on 600 acres with his wife, Molly, and son, Christopher. “We’re selling hay today at $7 a bale, and it takes about 71 bales of hay to pay for one.”

They own five moisture testers, one on each of four square balers with a spare that neighbors tend to borrow. His Delmhorst models cost about $500 each.

It also helps that he has a history with his fields, says the grower. “We have learned, now that we’ve been baling the same fields for years and years, which side might dry quicker than the other. It might have something to do with the slope and the way the sun’s hitting it.”

When establishing new stands, Geralds tills conventionally and plants 20-22 lbs/acre of pure alfalfa seed in spring. “When alfalfa gets about two or three years old, we drill in orchardgrass.” Timothy is used as the rotation crop.

Every field is soil-tested every October. “We want to know where we’re at so we can maintain and get yields we have to have to stay in business.”

Because most of his customers have no place to keep their hay, Geralds stores about 80% of his production. “On our farm, we can store about 70,000 small square bales, and we’ve got a neighbor who we can get a barn from that will hold another 12,000.”

The barns all have gravel floors, each with a layer of six-mil plastic and then straw, before hay is put on top. Bottom bales are sold as cow hay.

“The very last stage: We want to inspect every bale. We want to make sure the bales don’t leave our farm if they have anything in them that’s undesirable, like weeds or mold,” he says.