Since Terry Burris upgraded his big-bale-to-small-bale conversion system last August, he can process alfalfa as well as grass hay and straw, fill freight vans to their legal weight limit and do custom conversion work.

“We keep the machines busy doing our own hay and straw most of the time, but we can make time for customers who want something done,” says Burris, of Unionville, TN.

He bought a Steffen Systems Model 3600 bale conversion system, which slices 3 × 3', 3 × 4' or 4 × 4' bales and converts the slices to compressed 16 × 21" bales bound by plastic bands. He and three employees can make 2,400 small bales in an eight-hour day. With a fourth worker, those bales can be stacked on pallets and the pallet loads stretch-wrapped and ready for loading into a freight van.

Burris doesn't grow any hay, but buys about 75 semi loads a year and resells it.

“We buy all the best hay we can find of different kinds,” he reports. “We either sell it in the large square bales or we run it through the slicer and convert it to small bales.”

But the primary function of the conversion equipment is to make small straw bales out of the big ones that he harvests from his own wheat acreage. He sells 450 semi loads of straw per year, with most of it going to a major retail chain and to landscape and construction companies, and he likes to get it off the fields fast.

“We used to run two small square balers and three stack wagons to get wheat straw up,” he reports. “Now we can run one 3 × 4 large baler, two semi trucks and a loader tractor and get it up nearly three times as fast.”

He built his first conversion system several years ago, after a barn burned and he replaced the lost small straw bales with big squares. The system included a conventional baler and a machine that fed straw or grass hay into it from big bales. It worked satisfactorily, but as Burris' straw business grew, he needed more conversion capacity.

The new equipment is faster, and he says the bales, each with three plastic bands, hold together better than conventional bales. He can process alfalfa bales now, too, because he's slicing, not rebaling.

“It doesn't lose any leaves because the bales are still intact like they were baled with a large baler,” says Burris. “We couldn't even try to do alfalfa with our old machine.”

Small bales of alfalfa weigh about 60 lbs each, so he can get up to 24 tons in a freight van vs. 15-16 tons for conventional bales, he says.

He invested nearly $500,000 in the conversion system and a new building, and does custom work to help pay for them. Services he offers vary from conversion only, which currently costs $55/ton, to loading and shipping.

“We even go as far as get the trucks lined up both ways,” Burris says.

Steffen Systems has sold 14 Model 3600 systems, all east of the Mississippi River, reports Dave Steffen, president of the Salem, OR, company. About half are set up near where the hay is produced and half close to where it's marketed, he says.

“A lot of these guys are bringing hay in from the West in big bales because they're easier to truck,” says Steffen. “Then they're processing it as they sell it.”

He estimates that about half the buyers do custom work.

“People buy these for their own use. As soon as they have them, they find out that the custom market is incredibly big because nobody else in their area has that equipment,” says Steffen.

For more on Steffen Systems, go to www.steffensystems.com. Burris can be contacted at 931-580-6835.