Labor and transportation efficiencies have made big hay bales the rage in many producer circles. Getting lost in the excitement is the fact that new markets are blossoming for small bale packages as well. Several companies are tapping those markets, utilizing so-called slicing and compressing technology to create tight packages that are easily handled by individual buyers.

Dennis Mitchell, Yankton, SD, points to the equine industry as one livestock segment where small bales are still in great demand. Last fall, he launched Meadow Land Premium Forages with the idea of developing a value-added niche market among horse owners in the Southeast and elsewhere.

"You're not going to sell big round bales out of our part of the country in Texas or Georgia," explains Mitchell. "You can't transport them efficiently and you can't handle them easily once you get them there."

A home-built hay processing system is at the heart of Mitchell's business plan. He buys midsize and large bales from hay growers within a 200-mile radius and turns them into 16 x 18 x 24" bales weighing 50-65 lbs each. After shrink wrapping, 12 bales are stacked on a skid for easy handling and loading.

"We can load 24 tons onto a flatbed and tarp it in about 40 minutes," notes Mitchell. "The 12-bale skid also fits easily between the wheel wells on most pickup trucks."

Meadow Land can also blend several types of hay into bales tailor-made to fit a horse owner's specific feeding needs.

"Some buyers might want a bale that's 10% alfalfa and 90% grass, others a 50-50 mix. Or some people might want to add molasses, vitamins and minerals. Depending on what their feeding scheme is, we can make a bale for them."

On the marketing end, Mitchell is focusing his initial efforts on the traditional marketing chain, relying on a network of established hay brokers and dealers. Others believe a more sophisticated retail marketing structure can eventually be developed for small bale packages.

"We think that's where the real potential is," says Aron Simpson of Seattle-based Nicholson Manufacturing. "Look at the way dog food and rabbit food are sold now. The same thing can be done with hay."

Nicholson manufactures and markets a slicing machine and three compressors. The basic concept involves slicing big bales into several sections by running the material through a 6 x 6" grid screen and then compressing it into a woven poly sleeve (no strings involved).

Depending on which machine is used, the final product weighs anywhere from 30 to 950 lbs. The smaller bales are the best fit for the retail market.

"With the wrap, you get a nice clean product without any chaff or mess to deal with," says Simpson. "It's very appealing on the showroom floor at the feed store."

As another potential market, Nicholson is looking at ways to make it easier to blend grain or byproducts (beet pulp, for example) into the compressed bales, creating a prepackaged total-mixed ration for dairy producers. This type of product would appeal to dairy operations in high-population areas.

"You wouldn't get the dust that you get with a conventional on-farm mixer," says Simpson.

Dave Steffen of Steffen Systems in Salem, OR, also believes there's good retail potential for compressed bales.

With Steffen's Model 3400, 3 x 3' midsize bales are laid on their sides, then cut in half (3 x 4' bales are cut into three sections). The resulting sections are then funneled into a single row and moved over a scale for weighing. Next, individual sections are lifted into a compression chamber where a 16"-diameter cylinder is used to apply 1 million pounds of force.

These sections are tied off with nine strands of standard baler twine, kicked out of the compressor and cut into three 11 x 16 x 22" bales weighing 50-65 lbs each.

"The bales are very square and clean," says Steffen. "They stack up almost like bricks. That's great for the feed store."

Slicing and compressing are also opening up new opportunities for hay exports, says Steffen. He points to the Far East as a very lucrative market.

"In countries like Japan, you still find a lot of small livestock operations," points out Steffen. "A lot of times the feeding is done by women and children, so the smaller, lighter bales make sense.

"The Japanese also want long- fiber hay. Our system is set up to make that kind of product. The basic shape of the bale is never distorted as it goes through the process. We think it could continue to be a very good market."