Ben Puck is confident that some of the hay he made last summer was as good as can be produced anywhere in the world.

“Now our challenge is to do that all the time, and we're not there yet,” he says.

Puck, manager of alfalfa operations for Farm Partners Supply Co., Harlan, IA, made the high-quality hay — and some that wasn't as good — using propane-powered dryers purchased last spring. Farm Partners was the first client of Veda Farming Solutions, a new company with North American patent rights to an Italian dryer. Owner Davide Verardi modified the original design to fit U.S. farms and weather conditions, and is having the dryers manufactured here.

Each dryer has a burner that heats air to about 100° and a fan that blows it through a series of tunnels and flexible tubes to the hay. Bales are dried from the top and bottom at the same time.

Puck's company bought six dryers, each capable of drying eighteen 3 × 3 × 8' bales at a time. He'll use them to dry hay from 1,500 alfalfa acres owned by members of the farming partnership.

He hopes the dryers will enable him to produce more dairy-quality hay.

“They give us a little bit of an edge on cutting dates because we don't have to worry about the weather quite as much,” he says. “If it's going to be clear for the next two or three days, we can go ahead and cut.”

In addition, alfalfa that's too mature for dairy can be baled early and artificially dried, resulting in good leaf retention and color, with no mold. That hay should be well-suited to the horse market, says Puck.

“Our goal is to make world-class hay that we can go to any kind of market with,” he adds.

When done right, artificially dried hay is “unbelievable,” says Puck. “It's just beautiful hay.”

But he struggled all summer to get the dryers to work properly. Some bales dried faster than others, and individual bales dried unevenly.

He worked on the dryers and other aspects of his haying operation. He adjusted the balers so all bales were at uniform density throughout, and fluffed the windrows to make them dry more evenly. But none of those measures worked.

Finally, he contacted Rupp Air Management Systems, Lakeville, MN, which identified the problem: The ductwork on the dryers was too small.

“The fans and heaters are the right size and the plenums are the right size, but the ductwork between them was the wrong size,” Puck reports. “The dryers were performing at one-third of their potential, and we didn't figure it out until late in the year.”

New ductwork will be installed on all the dryers this winter. That change, plus some fine-tuning, should result in better performance next summer.

“I'm very optimistic that this is going to work great,” says Puck. “But right out of the box it's been quite a challenge.”

He adds: “We've seen that when you look at moisture vs air flow vs heat, those charts are absolutely correct. You can do all the things you want to, just like with drying corn. The trick is to get enough air into those bales to make sure they're dried uniformly.”

He figures artificial drying will reduce field drying time by a day. Weather permitting, he'll put hay into the dryers at 20-25% moisture and take it down to 10% moisture.

“We'll get it as dry as possible, because we're not trying to sell water; we're selling dry material. We're also selling shelf life, and very pretty hay with all the leaves attached. It's a better product.”

He believes the hay will command a $10-15/ton premium over the highest-quality field-dried hay, plus he'll have less low-quality hay to sell.

Costs will run around $10/ton for propane, plus the initial investment and other expenses will bring the total cost to around $25/ton.

Artificial drying, says Puck, “isn't as simple as going out and buying a bunch of dryers to dry all your hay. The logistics of more hay movement, more storage and more time invested need to be weighed.”

Verardi at Veda Farming Solutions says his dryers can be powered by propane or natural gas, and drying modules are available for big square or round bales. Each of Farm Partners' dryers has six three-bale modules. For 2006, though, each module will hold six bales.

Up to four square-bale modules can be connected to a single heating unit. A dryer with four drying modules is priced at $88,500.

For round bales, each drying module holds eight 4 × 4' bales or six bigger ones. A dryer with one module lists at $37,500.

For more information, contact Verardi at 954-547-8790, or visit www.haydryer.com.