The Offutts — John and sons Aaron and Ben — were in a classic pickle.
On one hand, the hay-growing family from Woodsboro, MD, was convinced that efficiencies offered up by big-bale haymaking were too good to ignore. On the flip side, the growing customer base for their timothy hay consisted mostly of horse owners interested in small rectangular bales.
Now the Offutts have a best-of-both-worlds solution, thanks to new repackaging technology that transforms large or midsize bales into small ones.
A decision three years ago to double hay acreage — to nearly 400 — was the starting point for the Offutts.
“We were putting up 20 acres (roughly 3,000-3,800 small square bales) a day,” explains John. “But we had trouble getting to all the timothy before it got past the right maturity.
“We tried correcting that problem by planting several varieties (staggering maturity dates). It helped some, but not nearly enough. We figured we had to go to big bales.”
Marketing concerns nagged until the Offutts learned that Oregon inventors David Steffen (Steffen Systems) and Don Ast (Ast Hay Co.) had designed automated equipment for slicing large bales into pieces. Those pieces could be compressed and retied into small bales of uniform size and weight. The equipment was designed to make dense bales for the export trade.
“We contacted them in January to see if they could build something to make bales that wouldn't be quite as dense and would appeal to our customers,” says Offutt.
By late August, the equipment was up and running at Twin Creek Farms. The machine, called a resizer or rebaler, processes either 3 × 3' or 3 × 4' bales of any length. Processing starts with a big bale placed on its side in a cutting chamber. A 3 × 3' bale is pushed through a single, 4'-long knife, yielding two 16 × 36" slabs. A 3 × 4' bale is pushed through two knives and yields three slabs.
The fact that initial cuts are made between the strings is a key feature of the operation, according to Ast.
“If the operator decides he doesn't like a slab for whatever reason, he can pull it off the table and haul it off to feed the cows or dispose of it in some other way,” he says. “Having the strings attached makes it easier to handle the slabs and also reduces waste.”
Next, the strings are removed and the loose material forms into a continuous flow. It's pushed into a dividing chamber until there's enough to make a 16 × 36 × 30" bale. The bale is then packed in a compression chamber and pushed to a standard plastic strapping machine for wrapping with four or six straps. Finally, the bale is propelled into a second cutter box containing a single knife.
End result: Two 16 × 18 × 30" bales tied with two or three plastic straps similar in appearance to bales coming out of a small hay baler.
In the Offutt setup, each 3 × 3 × 7' large bale yields roughly 11 small bales. About 900-1,000 small bales can be produced daily.
The learning curve for operating the new equipment hasn't been that steep, Offutt adds.
“We started out making small bales that weighed 60 lbs. But on a lot of farms, women end up handling the bales. We got some complaints, so now we're making 45-lb bales.”
The price tag on a portable machine for making low-density bales for domestic buyers is around $125,000. A larger stationary unit sells for $180,000. For housing either machine, Ast recommends a clear-span building with at least 5,500 sq ft of floor space.
He calculates that a grower producing for the domestic market needs to process at least 2,000 tons of hay annually to pay for the equipment.
Offutt believes expanded marketing opportunities justify his investment.
“We're in an area where buying or renting additional land for making hay isn't feasible,” he explains. “This way, we can buy large bales from other growers, truck them in here for processing and sell them as small bales at a higher price per ton.”
Ast says marketing flexibility may be an even more important benefit.
“When you're making hay in July or August, you don't really know what kind of bale is going to be in demand in February,” he says. “This way, you make large bales. Then, if the market is better for small bales in the winter, you'll be all set up to capitalize.”
For more information, call Ast at 503-678-5009 or Steffen at 503-399-9941.