Most hay growers have felt the frustration of seeing rainy weather render a high-quality crop virtually useless as animal feed.

But Peter Bragdon, Vassalboro, ME, thinks he might have a marketable use for such low-quality material: making “hay logs” that can burn in wood stoves, furnaces or even campfires.

The folks at USDA Rural Development think Bragdon might be on to something. Last June, the agency’s Value-Added Producer Grant program provided him nearly $27,000 to study the feasibility of using low-quality hay as a home heating fuel. He also received a $12,500 grant from the Maine Technology Institute.

Bragdon puts up timothy and mixed-grass hay on 300 owned and rented acres, selling to horse stables and feed stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In a typical year, he figures, rainy and cloudy weather makes about 25% of his production unsuitable for the horse market.

“Some years, it can be worse than that,” says the grower, who usually sells some of that hay to road construction firms or contractors needing mulch. But the price he gets is below, or just at, the cost of production.

The hay-log idea ignited as Bragdon worked a field one day. “I started wondering about hay being wrapped up on a drive shaft (of a baler). It gets formed on there so tight, and I wondered, ‘Why wouldn’t it burn?’ ”

Using a homemade press similar to a wood splitter, he made prototype compressed logs measuring 4 x 12”. He figures he can make seven logs from a 35-lb small square bale of grass hay.

Btu tests were done, and the hay logs compared favorably to compressed-wood logs. “Wood can be up to 48% moisture,” he explains. “But hay is a lot drier. That makes sense when you think about it, because you can’t bale hay if it’s much over 10% moisture. As a result, you end up with more Btus per pound with a hay log than with wood logs.”

Yet some compressed-wood products produce too many Btus and, if used, can void warranties on wood-burning stoves, Bragdon learned.

To avoid that problem, he experimented with adding different binding agents to hay during compressing and found three that fit the bill. He also plans to test how smoke created by his logs compares to smoke from compressed-wood logs.

Bragdon has applied for a patent on his logs and is working to secure funding to build and run a small manufacturing facility by November. Eventually, he hopes to employ up to five people. “Right now we’re hiring people to help us with baling in the summer. If we get this going, we could keep them on full time through the winter making the logs.”

He hopes to market his product to local woodstove retailers and grocery stores that sell compressed-wood logs, then move toward major retail chains like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Summer camping enthusiasts could be another market. “Under state law, people aren’t allowed to import firewood into the state because of the different insects they might bring in.”

Finding enough low-quality hay to keep the facility running shouldn’t be a problem. “You see a lot of people dragging round bales into the woods at the end of the year because they couldn’t find a market for the rained-on hay. Other people might have a field or two, where they’re not growing anything, that they’d like to see cleaned up. This would give them a way to get a little return on that land.”

Bragdon’s long-term goal is relatively straightforward. “It really comes down to two things – a good product and a decent price.”

To contact Bragdon, call 207-623-1476 or email p.bragdon@myfairpoint.net.