In early July, a thunderstorm blew in while Whipple Simpson was baling straw. He shrugged, said, “We can use the rain,” and kept on baling.

Actually, it was the second time the wheat straw had been baled. First he put it up in 4 × 6' round bales in the field. Then he turned those round bales into the small square bales prized by horse folks and landscapers — under a large shelter.

The Cochran, GA, producer's not-very-well-kept secret is his unroller. The hydraulically powered, home-built machine unrolls large round bales of straw or hay, fluffs the forage and feeds it into a conventional square baler.

Necessity was definitely the mother of this invention.

“One summer we put up more than 50,000 bales of wheat straw in four weeks,” says Simpson, who farms with his son Henry. “That almost killed us. Then the next year we rolled up some straw with no way to unroll it.”

He looked for a machine to do the job, but couldn't find one. So he built it himself.

The apparatus has three conveyor units that unroll the bales, followed by a dethatcher that fluffs the forage before sending it down the line to the square baler. Make that six conveyor units and two dethatchers. Because of the volume of hay and straw he handles, he made a double unit to save time.

“It only takes five or six minutes from the time the round bale is unloaded until the square bales come out the other end,” Simpson reports.

The operation takes three people — one on the tractor, one working the levers that control the hydraulics and one stacking bales on a truck.

“Those people, on average, can make 180 bales an hour,” he says. “One day, in nine hours we loaded three semis with 2,000 bales.”

The initial baling goes faster now, too. When Simpson made small bales in the field, a crew of six could bale and stack 10 acres of hay or straw a day. With round bales, four people can easily cover 25 acres a day.

Labor savings are one big advantage to Simpson's system. But he says time is almost a bigger factor with wheat straw.

“Everybody is doublecropping,” he explains. “They have half the field planted before the combine leaves. By rolling and converting the straw, you've extended your baling season to 12 months.”

Simpson's wife, Faye, gives another compelling reason for converting round bales to square: “Money.”

University of Georgia extension forage specialist John Andrae agrees.

“The main market for large round bales in Georgia is beef producers who typically won't pay a premium for quality hay,” says Andrae. “The average price for bermudagrass hay in large round bales is $50-60 a ton, which is very near the cost of production.”

However, when the same hay is put up in small square bales and marketed to horse owners, the price goes up to around $150 a ton, says Andrae.

Apparently, it's the same story in other parts of the country. Simpson builds and sells his E-Z Unroller, and has clients from Florida to Canada. But he says it's not popular with alfalfa growers.

“It has no problem unrolling the alfalfa, but the leaves are translocated to the bottom half of the bale.”

Simpson sells a double unroller for $45,000, f.o.b. Cochran, installed. The price includes the elevator to take square bales to a truck. A single-unroller system is $15,500 and the elevator can be bought separately.

For more information, contact: Simpson Farms, Route 2, Box 247-F, Cochran, GA 31014. Phone 478-934-0854, or log onto www.simpsonunroller.com.