Recent wet springs have convinced Bruce Fitzpatrick that hay growers need a way to get the crop off the field faster.

“The openings just aren't long enough and weather patterns are terrible,” says Fitzpatrick, a Hubbardston, MI, alfalfa grower. “If you're going to make hay for a living, you better have something to cover your odds.”

He thinks artificial drying might be an answer. In June, he hosted the first U.S. demonstration of a hay dryer imported from Italy. For two days, he dried big square bales from a wide range of moisture levels down to around 10% moisture.

“We torture-tested it,” he says. “They wanted 35- to 45%-moisture hay, and we gave them anywhere from 30 to 65%. It dried it. I was impressed with the hay's quality when it came out.”

He used a Clim.Air 50 dryer distributed by Double D Tractor Parts, Sikeston, MO. A similar dryer is being imported by the Italian firm Feraboli.

Both brands were introduced at U.S. farm shows last winter. While many growers showed interest, they wanted to see a dryer operating before committing to buy. But demonstration dryers didn't get here until after most first alfalfa cuttings were finished, and delivery would have taken several weeks. So none have been sold so far.

Representatives from both companies expect sales to heat up this fall and winter, and plan to warehouse dryers to shorten delivery times.

The dryers will handle big square or round bales. Both have two drying floors with tunnels and ducts inside them. An electric fan blows air over burners powered by diesel, propane or natural gas. At about 100°, the air moves through the tunnels in the bottom floor to three flexible tubes at the opposite end. Those tubes carry the air to the top-floor tunnels. Bales are dried from the top and bottom at the same time.

The cost of drying hay from 35 to 40% moisture to 12% is said to be about $10/ton. Fitzpatrick says he achieved that much drying in 4-4½ hours, while 50- to 55%-moisture hay took about 7 hours to dry.

The demonstration unit he used dried 12 square bales at a time. A commercial-size dryer would hold 18 of those bales, though the number would vary some with bale dimensions. One or two more drying modules could be added to increase capacity.

In Europe, where the dryers have been sold for about 10 years, growers reportedly use them to dry all their hay. That's an option for U.S. growers, too, but may require some management changes. Fitzpatrick foresees many U.S. growers using dryers selectively, drying hay only as needed to widen their harvesting windows.

“You could start baling earlier and bale a lot later, drying the ones you bale in the morning and evening,” he says.

He no longer needs drying help because this year he sold most of his 500 alfalfa acres to nearby dairies as haylage. But he thinks a dryer could benefit many growers who make big bales.

“There's a place for it,” says Fitzpatrick. Glen Cauffman, Penn State University's manager of farm operations, agrees.

“I think it has great potential for Pennsylvania farmers who have difficulty drying hay,” says Cauffman.

He's testing a Feraboli dryer that holds eight round bales at a time. He began using it in late October last year.

“We made some very, very high-quality hay then,” says Cauffman.

But bad weather this summer has made it difficult to field-dry hay to the 50% moisture level he wants going into the dryer. To avoid rain, he's baled hay as high as 70% moisture.

Especially at high initial moisture levels, he's had some problems with drying uniformity. He's also had difficulty determining when the hay is dry. Electronic moisture probes aren't accurate enough, he says.

It looks to Cauffman like the cost of drying hay with the unit is reasonable. By fall, he hopes to have an exact cost figure, and probably some dryer refinement recommendations for the manufacturer.

For more information, call David or Ryan Eftink at Double D Tractor Parts (573-471-2727), or Feraboli's Davide Verardi (954-547-8790).