Gary Smith recently paid several thousand dollars for a moisture meter for his big square baler and believes it's a good investment.

“If you have a barn burn down, what's that worth?” asks Smith, of Mission Hill, SD.

He was one of several hay growers who field-tested a new type of baler-mounted moisture meter last summer. Said to be more accurate than other types, the Gazeeka Model 870 uses microwaves to measure the moisture of entire bales as they leave the baler.

Readings are taken 50 times per second, and the average moisture content of each bale appears on a screen in the tractor cab. If a reading is above a predetermined moisture level, the unit sprays paint on both sides of the bale at that location. At the same time, an alarm sounds to tell the operator he has a wet bale. That bale can then be separated so it won't be sent to a client or stacked in a shed with dry hay.

The meter is imported from Australia by International Stock Food, Woodstock, GA, which markets forage additives internationally. Don Dodson, national sales manager, says it was invented by an Australian engineer who adapted the technology from the mining and cotton industries.

The meter will work on any big square baler, Dodson says. Operated by the tractor's 12-volt electrical system, it has two boxes, or antennae, one on each side of the bale chamber. Microwaves move from one box across to a mirror in the second box and back to the first one.

After seeing a Gazeeka meter on a baler in Australia several years ago, Peter Vinelli, owner of International Stock Food, brought one to the U.S. in 2008 to test its accuracy. Dodson collected 10 core samples from several bales and sent them to Dairyland Labs, Arcadia, WI, for moisture testing. Readings from the baler-mounted meter were all within half a percent of the oven-dried lab results, Dodson claims.

Unlike meters that estimate moisture using conductivity, this one measures a larger segment of the bale, including stem moisture, he adds. “It's the only one on the market that I know of that will read stem moisture.”

“I think it's pretty darn accurate,” agrees Smith, immediate past president of the National Hay Association. “It's a really good management tool, especially if you've got hired help out there.”

He had one on a 3 × 3' Hesston baler most of the summer and noticed only one glitch: It occasionally sprayed paint on bale ends that weren't wet.

“I haven't even told them that yet, but I need to visit with them this winter,” he says.

He had the meter set to mark bales when a moisture reading exceeded 17% and found it to be especially beneficial when he “pushed it to the limit,” baling marginally dry hay as rain threatened.

Identifying bales with wet hay from where a windrower plugged, for example, is also helpful, he says. “If you've got a slug out in the middle of nowhere, it's good to know that.”

At Freeburg Hay Farms, Gayville, SD, wet hay occurs mostly on end rows and behind groves of trees, says Tom Dreesen. Dreesen, in charge of row crops at Gary and Amy Freeburg's operation, baled with a Krone Big Pack baler with the Gazeeka meter attached. Like Smith, he says the meter is accurate and sees benefit in identifying problem bales.

The meter was normally set to paint hay above 18% moisture, but it was a tough haymaking season.

“Sometimes if we were just trying to get hay off the field we had to turn it up or turn it off or we'd have them all marked,” Dreesen reports.

The meter, which costs $7,690, will be marketed through hay equipment dealers in 2010. “We have dealers set up, and we're adding dealers,” says Dodson. “I would prefer that a dealer install it because there are some software and electronics involved.”

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