Phil Saunders was still baling timothy hay in October last year, long after most other Northeastern growers were done for the season.
He field-dried the late-cut hay to 30% moisture, baled it, then finished the job in a drying barn. But extending the haying season is just one benefit of artificial drying, says Saunders, a partner at Sugar Creek Farm, Dansville, NY. Another: He can guarantee horse-hay buyers that his product is uniformly dry and dust-free, which translates into higher selling prices.
“I get a premium just because of my dryer,” he says. “It's a selling point.”
Barn drying is no panacea, though. Loading and unloading the dryer a few bales at a time is tedious and time-consuming.
“The extra work you make for yourself is phenomenal,” Saunders declares.
It's expensive, too. Costs per ton dried can total half the hay's value — even at the $140/ton Saunders currently gets for second-cut timothy. But the dryer is helping him build a reputation as a reliable supplier of high-quality timothy. And he can make hay when nobody else can.
“When I sold a load for $3,000 last fall, the guy who doesn't have a dryer got nothing because he couldn't make hay,” says Saunders. “Even if I took half that money away — for the cost of drying and the building — I still had $1,500 that I wouldn't have had without a drying system.”
Saunders began increasing Sugar Creek's timothy acreage shortly after he joined the operation six years ago. His goal was to become one of New York's premier horse hay producers.
“I think we're pretty much there, and the dryer is probably the reason,” Saunders reports.
Built in 2001, the 50 × 125' facility is used as needed on hay from the farm's 750 acres of timothy plus 130 acres of alfalfa for dairy clients. Up to 2,400 bales at a time can be dried over three 80'-long, grate-covered tunnels. The 3'-deep, 9'4"-wide tunnels are just wide enough to accommodate bale wagon-stacked hay.
Saunders places stacks just outside the barn, then uses a skid-steer loader and bale fork to load the facility. Moving a full bale wagon tier at a time, he stacks bales up to four high on the grates.
The tunnels extend into an adjacent room, where a propane burner and 42" fan are situated at the end of each one. Air is heated to 150°, then is blown through the tunnels and up through the hay.
Saunders uses the dryer mostly in spring and fall, when conditions are least favorable for haying. But it also permits him to make hay between summertime rains. Often, he can cut and ted timothy one morning, ted it again the following morning, and bale it at 30% moisture that afternoon.
“It gives us the ability to put more tonnage into our barn because we don't need as much time for Mother Nature to dry it naturally,” he says.
To ensure heat-free storage, Saunders dries the hay to 8% moisture. In summer, he often can dry 2,400 bales from 30% moisture to 8% in 15 hours. But it takes much longer in cool weather. To improve drying efficiency in fall, he usually dries just one or two layers of bales at a time.
“The more you put on and the later in the year, the longer it takes to dry.”
Propane costs range from $15/ton in summer to $30/ton or more in October. In addition, the building and drying system came in at about $160,000. Amortizing that amount over 10 years adds $20-30/ton to drying costs, Saunders figures.
He offers this advice to a grower considering a hay dryer: It doesn't have to be elaborate. You can save money by putting it in an existing structure. His began as a three-sided concrete bunker silo.
“Basically, we just put a roof and a back side on it,” he says.
Saunders chose propane over fuel oil because the burners offered the heating capacity he needed at a more reasonable cost. Propane is more explosive, but he installed added safety measures to minimize the fire risk. Heat sensors in each tunnel and 3' from each burner will shut the system down if the temperature gets too high. And a Maxon valve is connected to all three burners so if one malfunctions, all of them will shut off within four seconds.
“Nothing's foolproof, but I think this dryer is relatively safe,” he says.