Farmers need to know how much their round bales weigh, and most can’t accurately “guesstimate” those numbers, says Jennifer Blazek.

“We need to educate people about the importance of weighing their hay so they’re feeding and buying or selling accurately,” says Blazek, Polk County Extension ag agent in Balsam Lake, WI.

That’s the main goal of her two-year-old Bale Weight Project, in which she and Otto Wiegand, area Extension ag agent at Spooner, weigh bales for farmers who request the free service. They also pull and mail samples from each hay lot weighed, and the Northwest Wisconsin Graziers Network pays for forage tests.

Last year they weighed and sampled three bales from each of 34 hay lots on 16 farms in Burnett, Polk, Sawyer and Washburn counties.

The idea came from Lynn Johnson, an Amery beef producer and graziers network consultant. When round bales are bought and sold, information needed to ensure fair pricing is too often missing, says Johnson. Some buyers, who may know less about forages, often feel taken advantage of.

“So we decided to get proactive and provide more detailed information. We felt the best way to do that was to participate in a project like this,” he says.

Livestock producers who feed their own hay need the information to properly balance rations and manage hay inventories, he adds. They have to know how much hay is on hand, and how much they need, to determine whether they’ll have to buy more or sell animals to stretch supplies through winter.

“All of this has really gotten amplification since the price of hay has gone through the roof,” he says. “Some fundamental decision-making is going on that requires accurate bale weights and nutrition measurements.”

Bale-weight variation is normal due to differences in bale density, hay type, moisture content and other factors. Bale density, the biggest variable, is largely a function of the baler model, tension setting and age, with newer machines tending to make heavier bales than older ones, says Johnson.

But Blazek has seen big weight differences in bales made by the same baler. On one farm last year, 5 x 6’ bales of first-cutting alfalfa-grass hay ranged from 1,310 to 1,950 lbs, she reports.

“If you’re eyeballing bales, you’re going to make bigger mistakes on bigger bales,” adds Johnson. “We’re convinced that it’s very rare to find anybody who can accurately guess what bales weigh. You can improve with experience, but not by much. The only solution is to weigh bales.”

Most dairy producers have ration mixers that weigh ingredients, but few beef producers feed TMRs, and smaller operators can’t justify the cost of on-farm scales, says Johnson. He suggests that they group bales into uniform lots, load a few from one lot onto a trailer and take them to a scale.

“Get a weight on the whole load, then divide by the number of bales and you’ve probably got an accurate estimate.”

Blazek and Wiegand weigh bales using two scales borrowed from the Polk County Land & Water Resources Department and a wood cradle that Johnson built to hold bales in place. In each case, the farmer places a bale in the cradle, then he and the Extension agents estimate its weight before the actual weight is logged.

A few farmers are spot-on in their estimates, while others consistently miss by several hundred pounds. On average in 2013, farmers and Extension agents missed actual weights by more than 100 lbs, says Blazek.

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