Custom forage harvester Nathan Strahm was frustrated by the results of a wet haylage harvest two years ago. His client, dairyman Jeff Williams, wasn't happy with its quality, either.

Strahm's suggested solution, however — to lay alfalfa in wider swaths and follow with a merger — threw Williams for a loop.

“I'm always skeptical of something that's different and requires more field operations and increased costs,” says Williams, Milledgeville, IL.

Yet he hired Strahm to cut his alfalfa, leaving swaths as wide as the converted 25' draper head on his MacDon windrower.

“It spreads the hay out for faster drying and higher-quality feed,” says Strahm, Monticello, WI.

His new 30' Miller Pro 310 merger gathers those swaths hours after mowing, making windrows that keep his chopper at full capacity.

“It keeps the chopper hours down,” says Williams, who milks 400 cows.

Because it gets more sunlight, hay dries faster and more uniformly in wide swaths than in windrows. Fast drying lowers respiration losses, resulting in higher-quality harvested forage. In an alfalfa study cited by Rensselaer County, NY, extension agent Tom Kilcer, 13% more milk was produced from a ton of first-cutting haylage chopped from wide swaths vs. narrow ones. In second-cutting grass, which had excellent drying conditions, the wide-swath advantage was 9%.

The year Strahm and Williams started using the wide-swath windrower, however, was a dry one in northwestern Illinois. “Some of the concerns we had in previous years were almost non-existent. Rain wasn't an issue,” says Williams. In fact, water was added to windrows during the two middle cuttings to keep Strahm's harvester from gumming up.

Harvest, however, “went very, very well,” says Williams. “Our first cutting was exceptional quality, around 170 RFV and 190 RFQ,” he says. “We were very happy with it.” He's not sure of the quality of later cuttings, because he hasn't needed to test and feed them.

Although Strahm has been a dairyman himself — he sold his herd last December — he is a mechanic at heart. He widened the windrower's swath by taking off the head's draper belts. Adding a few homemade rollers kept hay from hanging up on the head's support arms. Draper belt motors were coupled to those rollers.

“It was very simple to make, but time-consuming,” says Strahm of his converted machine. “We've been very pleased with the way it works.”

The drawback, he says, is having to add “a very expensive piece of equipment and a big tractor to pull that hay back together again.

“The other thing is, we have to learn to watch our hay a lot closer now because it dries so much faster. If we've got good weather and start cutting in the morning, we need to be merging in the afternoon, five to six hours later, depending on the temperature and field conditions,” Strahm says.

There is an added risk, Williams says. “You have to be relatively careful that the weather is in your favor when you're running the merger. Once you merge that hay, I don't want to know what that would be like after 3” of rain. If the weather is threatening, you want to keep that merger pretty close to the harvester.”

Having his 200 acres of alfalfa wide-swathed is expensive, too, Williams reports. Because Strahm added the merger and a large tractor to his inventory, he's had to raise his rates.

“It will cost me $3,000-4,000 more if you figure four cuttings with a small increase in the mowing charge and merging costs,” Williams says. “But the money you spend in merging is a tradeoff in chopping time.”

Strahm hopes that his wide-swath machine will drum up more custom harvesting business. “The business hasn't grown because of it so far, but I anticipate, as more people become aware of it, it may be a drawing card.”

Derwood (Woody) Martin expects wide swathing to help his custom harvesting business, too.

“We're getting ready to start our third year, and we've had absolute good success with it,” says Martin, of Shippensburg, PA. “I haven't found anybody who's unhappy with it.”

He switched to wide swaths to reduce drying time and the risk of rain damage. Now he says higher-quality haylage is the main selling point.

“I feel very confident that I can gain you 25 to 30 points of relative feed value,” says Martin. “So if you have hay that would have tested 110 RFV under normal conditions, I can put that at 140.”

He doesn't chop himself, but mows and merges in conjunction with several custom choppers. He does some custom baling, but 90% of the mowing is for haylage production. He expects to cut 10,000 acres this year.

He switched to wide swaths shortly after buying a Miller Pro 310 merger. Before that, “We had big choppers and we had the ability to mow fast, but we couldn't get the whole system matched up,” he recalls. “No one built a merger that did the job fast enough.”

Raking isn't an option for haylage, he says. It's too slow, plus rocks and other trash end up in the windrows.

“To most chopper guys I work with, a rake's a curse word,” says Martin.

Shortly before getting the merger, he bought a 23' Italian-made ROC mower with merger belts on the back. The belts moved all the hay to one side of the machine, leaving a narrow windrow. Then a second windrow was laid beside it on the return trip.

“That was a great concept, but it didn't work because the hay wouldn't dry,” he reports.

With the merger belts removed, the mower leaves swaths that are about 95% of the cutting width. On sunny days, a heavy crop may be dry enough to merge and chop in seven hours; a lighter one, in five hours.

“When I start mowing at 8 in the morning, I want the chopper on standby, because we could be ready to go as early as 1 o'clock,” says Martin.

He has been conditioning the crop, but plans to remove the conditioning rolls this year.

“Even if you go to dry hay, I'm not sure conditioning does anything for it,” says Martin. “I think you get a lot more benefit laying it out completely wide rather than conditioning.”

He says the ROC mower does a great job, but it's a sophisticated, expensive machine. The merger is costly, too, and he pulls both with 300-hp tractors. He believes the high cost of wide-swath mowing and merging works in his favor, keeping choppers from doing those operations themselves.

“We've got about $400,000 worth of equipment in the field to mow and merge hay,” says Martin.