"This could become a real godsend for Western hay producers," says Dave Staheli of his patented dew simulator.

"Dew simulation is the process of adding moisture, in the form of steam, to dry hay during baling," explains Staheli, a Cedar City, UT, hay grower.

The steam softens the hay and aids leaf retention, he says. It also minimizes dust and increases bale density.

He claims hay baled with the dew simulator has more protein and higher relative feed value scores than hay baled with natural dew.

Trademarked the DewPoint, the simulator is a trailer-mounted steam generator that's pulled between tractor and baler. Injection manifolds mounted above and below the baler's pickup mechanism spray steam on the hay as it's lifted off the ground. More steam is applied as the hay passes through the feed chamber and just before it's compressed.

The new machine comes in two sizes. The DewPoint 6100 works with most conventional large- and midsized rectangular balers; the DewPoint 3100, with three-tie conventional balers.

Each is equipped with a boiler and a 650- or 1,300-gallon stainless-steel water tank, plus diesel tanks to fuel the boiler burner and a generator to power the boiler's electrical system. Steam-delivery hoses extend from the boiler back to the baler.

An electronic moisture sensor mounted in the bale chamber reads each bale's moisture level, and the figure is displayed inside the tractor cab. The operator can adjust moisture level on the go from the cab.

Under very dry conditions, about 80 lbs (10,000 gallons) of steam are applied to each ton of hay. One gallon of diesel fuel is enough to produce that much steam.

Western hay growers often bale at night, after dew has formed. But the window of opportunity for baling hay at its optimum quality can be quite small because natural dew is inconsistent, says Staheli.

"We prefer the dew simulator to natural dew; it's easier and we get a lot more work done on our schedule. We can go out and bale when we're ready and go day or night until we're finished. And the quality of the last bale is as good as the first."

Frustration, caused by several weeks of dry weather in 1994, led Staheli to develop the simulator. With time to spare because his hay was too dry to bale, he fired up his wife's pressure cooker and blew steam into a box of dried hay with a hose.

"Within a few seconds, I reached in and felt the hay. It was just perfect."

Figuring he was onto something, Staheli built his first prototype that winter and had it in the field by the next hay season. In 1996 he built two more prototypes - one of each size. In 1997 he built and sold nine units to growers in Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

Staheli estimates that those machines have been used on over 30,000 tons of hay.

Researchers from Utah State University and the University of Nevada have offered to test the machine this summer.

Staheli is negotiating with major equipment companies to manufacture his invention. Units could be available on a wide scale in two to three years.

He cautiously estimates that the 6100 might sell for $80,000-90,000; the 3100 might cost $50,000-60,000.