Ingenious custom harvesters from Ohio and Iowa have successfully built and field-tested the latest type of self-propelled machine not yet on the market: the self-propelled big square baler.

Jerry and Tom Fry, Montpelier, OH, and Gary Kelderman, Oskaloosa, IA, welded existing balers and tractors into large, easy-to-maneuver machines. Both models use hydrostatic drive to vary speed according to the crop that comes in.

“Hydrostatic drive is just more efficient,” says Tom Fry, who, with his brother, owns a steel fabricating shop. “Where the crop gets thin you can speed up and keep the baler full.”

The Frys' red machine is a 4910 Hesston baler and Buhler Versatile 2270 4WD tractor hybrid with a Cummins 300-hp engine and four big flotation tires. They used just the front half of the tractor, replacing its transmission with hydrostatic drive and its axle with a homemade version. Attaching the tractor front to the baler with a steel frame, they replaced the pto driveline with a hydraulic motor to drive the baler.

They also added a unique hydraulic turntable on the back to rotate the 4 × 4 × 8' bales a quarter turn.

“The turntable puts the bales on edge so we don't have to go crossways on the field to pick them up. We can go the same direction as the baler,” Fry says.

The Fry self-propelled baler has been tested the past three growing seasons, annually harvesting 6,000 acres of straw and from 500 to 3,000 acres of hay, depending on the dairy customers' needs. After the first season, a different hydrostatic drive was put in and the homemade axle was replaced with a tractor axle.

This coming season, they plan to figure out the machine's fuel consumption and compare its fuel economy with that of pull-types.

Kelderman's invention combines a Freeman baler and John Deere tractor mounted with a Kelderman air suspension system. The finished product has a four-speed transmission, hydrostatic drive and a JD 8.1 liter, 320-hp engine. It can bale 50-60 bales/hour under good conditions.

“We used the Freeman baler because it is all hydraulic-driven and has a hydraulic plunger instead of a crankshaft mechanism,” says Kelderman, who also owns Kelderman Manufacturing Co. “It lasts so much longer, with so much less maintenance.”

A 9" TV monitor is mounted on the steering column so the operator can watch the activity behind him.

Kelderman's machine has been used year-round for four years. He figures it has produced 40,0003 × 4 × 8' bales of alfalfa and switchgrass.

One advantage of a self-propelled baler is easy maneuverability.

“It's a lot smoother; you can drive faster in rough fields, 2- to 3-mph faster, on average,” estimates Fry when comparing his machine to the pull-types. The self-propelled also makes shorter turns, making it possible to go right into the next windrow, rather than skipping one.

“You don't have to worry about the pto shaft” while turning, adds Kelderman.

His baler is one of three used by Prairie Lands Bio-Products, a biomass project that harvests switchgrass used to generate electricity. The switchgrass is grown on rough, hilly ground and harvested even through winter, sometimes in adverse conditions, says Kelderman, vice president of Prairie Lands.

“If you get 40° weather on frozen ground, the slopes get slick and you can't pull pull-type balers. My self-propelled bales more bales than the two pull-type balers combined,” he says.

Less maintenance is another benefit of the self-propelled.

“There's no pto driveline to worry about; you don't have to worry about the universal joints,” says Fry.

Kelderman says that the Freeman baler's plunger activates only when the chamber's filled with crop. That means the baler quits running at the end of the field, reducing machine wear.

Operator comfort also improves on this type of baler, both men say. The added height of the machines offers better visibility than conventional tractor cabs.

“You're not looking back all the time and you've got an unrestricted view,” Kelderman says. “We've had days when we've baled 500 bales in one day, and that's when operator comfort and machine maneuver-ability show up.”

“You're sitting up high enough you can look back and watch the knotters on the baler,” Fry adds.

If you're thinking you may want one of these models, you'll have to wait. Kelderman has negotiated with a manufacturing company to mass-produce his model, but can't reveal its name at this time. The Fry brothers are working to determine the price for building more machines.

“We've got a couple of guys interested in them,” Fry says. “But these last two years the prices have been outrageous. Baler prices keep going up all the time and it's hard to price something when you don't make it all yourself.”