Using vans to transport hay offers a bevy of advantages for buyers, sellers and haulers. But they're a bear to load and unload.

Not so for Sheldon Tobler.

This Harvard, NE, hay dealer built a simple apparatus that enables him to quickly load his van with big or small bales. Here's how his "poor man's live bottom" works:

Tobler mounted a heavy-duty, 6"-diameter pulley at the front of his trailer. A cable runs from the rear of the trailer to the pulley and back to the rear. A clevis on one end of the cable attaches to a 6"-high double angle iron bar that slides along the van floor. A clevis on the other end is hooked to a tractor or skid-steer loader.

When loading his van, he first places a big bale or 15-20 small ones on the ground at the end of the trailer, with the top even with the floor. That bale or bales serves as a loading dock.

He then stacks two or four big bales, or 72 small ones, on the dock. The tractor pushes them into the van, then the cable is hooked to its loader bucket and the drag bar is put in place. Bales are moved into the van as the tractor backs away.

"Any tractor, loader or whatever can drag the bales to the front of the trailer in about 30 seconds," says Tobler. "Then I walk to the front of the trailer, pull the drag bar back and do it again."

He can load anywhere - in the field or at the farmstead - using any type of tractor or loader a farmer has available.

"One hour after I pull in the yard, I've got the van loaded, the door shut, and I'm out of there," he says. "With a flatbed, you have to spend at least two hours tying down your load and putting a tarp on."

Unloading is done in similar fashion at the buyer's farm, but not with the loading mechanism. Sets of big bales, or small stacks of small ones, are pulled out of the van by a tractor or loader, utilizing a 50' chain and straps that are put in place during loading.

"It only takes about 30 minutes to unload little bales if you've got two people."

Most hay he buys and sells now is hauled in vans. When he has more orders than he can fill himself, he hires other truckers with vans. The loading apparatus can easily be moved from one van to another.

Tobler says van hauling is better for him and his customers. He can load and unload in any weather, and no hay gets rained on or discolored by road salt or oil in transit.

"There's never a complaint about the hay being wet or the tarp having a hole in it," he says. "It's much better customer relations."

He gets more hay in a van, too. A standard van is 53' long; a standard flatbed, 48'. And he has more backhaul options, because some materials can be hauled in a van but not on a flatbed.