Over the years, Tom Burlingham has assembled an array of tools for taking some of the bad-weather challenges out of haymaking. He uses everything from an on-farm dryer to preservatives to a cropping system that includes making an extra field pass with a crimper after cutting with a mower-conditioner.

“If we had perfect drying weather all the time, there wouldn't be any challenge to making hay,” says Burlingham, of Palmyra, WI.

Now Burlingham is seriously considering adding one more item to his threatening-weather tool kit: a Super Conditioner from Circle C Equipment, Hermiston, OR.

Circle C introduced its Super Conditioner in the West about three years ago. It features specially designed rolls and an air-bag pressure mechanism that replace the conventional conditioning rolls in most swathers and mower-conditioners. Rather than crimping the plant every few inches (as with conventional rolls), the Super Conditioner crushes the entire plant.

Early studies at Oregon State University showed that growers using the mechanism could reduce hay drying times by one-third to one-half. Those results caught Burlingham's attention.

“You're always looking for an edge,” he says.

Burlingham got an up-close look at a Super Conditioner in action last summer when he participated in a study by Matt Hanson, his county extension agent. Hanson found that super-conditioned hay dried about four hours faster than hay put through Burlingham's regular routine.

Burlingham makes both large and small bales and often runs two balers in the same field.

“With two balers you can make a pile of hay in just a couple of hours,” he says.

He figures the new conditioning method could lead to other savings, too. First, he could save a field pass by not using the crimper. “We could eliminate a tractor and save some labor and fuel as well,” he points out.

He also thinks he'd use less preservative.

Hanson compared several other equipment setups in another dry-down study at Burlingham's farm. The Super Conditioner again showed some advantages. In some cases, the difference was a full day.

Even so, calculating the economics of the new conditioner can be tricky, Hanson says. A kit for replacing conventional rolls with Super Conditioner rolls in most cutting-equipment models sells for around $13,000. That doesn't include the cost of the swather or mower-conditioner.

Circle C also makes a pull-type Super Conditioner that sells for around $21,000.

“The question you have to ask is whether the improvement in drying rate will pay for the equipment over time,” says Hanson.

The answer, he says, will vary widely among growers.

“I'd say this probably will be most appealing to people making dry hay,” he says. “If you're in the business of making quality dry hay, and a lot of it, saving a day by avoiding rain would help justify the price. But there needs to be more research.”

University of Wisconsin ag engineer Kevin Shinners came to a similar conclusion when he conducted several dry-down studies two years earlier. Like Hanson and Burlingham, Shinners saw some drying-time advantage with the Super Conditioner vs. equipment fitted with conventional rolls — about 10-15%.

“This might work out to a difference of an hour or two,” Shinners says. “So you have to ask yourself what that hour or two means. On some days, it might be a very big deal. On other days, it might not be a big deal at all. Everybody's situation is different.”

But he also notes that the drying advantage dropped off when clearance for conventional rolls was maintained at ideal settings. Growers may be able to improve their drying rates by properly setting and maintaining their current rolls, says Shinners.