Gary Thering and his family can turn an 800-lb round straw bale into 150-160 mini-bales, bagged and labeled,in about 20 minutes.
This ability to make large numbers of small bales in a short time has enabled Thering, of Lyndonville, NY, to keep pace with a growing demand for his 8 × 10 × 15" bales marketed as fall holiday decorations.
Since he started making mini-bales nine or 10 years ago, his business has grown about 10% per year. But he did much better than that this year, making 36,000 bales, 9,000 more than in 2006. He sells them through a broker, and the bales end up in a variety of retail outlets throughout the Northeast and as far away as Florida and Texas. He won't divulge his selling price, but says the 4- to 6-lb bales retail for up to $6 apiece in large urban areas.
Thering makes the mini-bales with a homemade concoction that takes apart big bales and feeds the straw into a modified small square baler. A round bale is placed in an old front-unloading forage box and the net-wrap is removed. When baling begins, the forage box's apron slowly carries the bale into its beaters, and straw drops out of the box and onto a conveyor that takes it to the baler.
Originally built to make 14 × 18” bales, the baler got a complete makeover, including a new plunger and bale chamber, to produce 8 × 10" packages.
“Everything had to be downsized,” says Thering. “I brought everything down proportionally,and what didn't fit I worked on until I made it fit.”
The knotters are the originals,but Thering brought them as close together as possible. That was the most difficult part of the conversion, he says. But they've worked well.
“I don't think that baler missed a dozen ties this year,” he says. “The knotters work better than the ones I use in the field, but they're inside all the time.”
The forage box, conveyor and baler are all operated by a tractor pto, though Thering plans to replace the tractor with electric motors.
All mini-bales are weighed as they leave the baler, and any weighing less than 4 lbs or more than 6 lbs are set aside for rebaling. The others are bagged and loaded onto carts, stacked on pallets later and placed in storage to await shipment.
Mini-bale production takes place from May through September in one of two hoop buildings built for that enterprise. It's hard work for Thering's crew of mostly family members, including his wife, Nancy; daughter, Julie; and sister, Donna Jones. Family friend Carol Button also helps out.
Thering's job is to ensure an even flow of straw from the forage box to the baler. He stands by the conveyor, smoothing out clumps and spreading straw evenly across the width of the conveyor belt. He does it manually now, but hopes to figure out a better way to get that important job done.
“That belt is the windrow going into the baler,” he says. “And just like an ordinary baler in a field, if you keep the right amount going onto that belt, enough will get packed across the whole bale so you'll get a decent bale out of it.”
When Thering planned his enterprise, he knew that, to be successful, he had to make a lot of bales and that it had to be done indoors with a stationary baler.
“There's no time to be messing around in the field on a great big windrow,” he says. “It's got to be done inside.”
He also knew that marketing would be very important, and that he didn't want to do it himself.
“I'm not good at that,” he says. “That's why everything is done with a broker.”
He made the small bales with his own straw at first. Since then,he has scaled back his farming operation to concentrate on mini-bales and an apple orchard. He still grows a few acres of small grains, but buys most of the straw from other farmers. Since mini-bale shipments begin prior to the small-grain harvest, he's usually working with straw baled the previous year.
He bales it himself, hauls the bales home and stacks them in his barn. That worked well in 2007,a dry year. But sometimes Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, and bales get rained on before he can get them home. Once last year, for example, 2½" of rain fell on bales the night he finished baling 12 miles from home.
The outsides of those bales were discolored and had to be pealed off before being converted to mini-bales, a task that made mini-bale production slower and more labor-intensive this summer.
“It's a lot of work the way we did it this year,” says Thering.
To avoid that problem in the future, he recently bought a bale wrapper to wrap bales shortly after finishing each field.
“We're still going to put them away in the barn, but the wrapper will buy us two or three days or even a week,” says Thering. “If the straw gets some rain on it, it still ought to be nice and dry to bring home and put away.”
He hopes to continue growing his business until he reaches 100,000 mini-bales per year. With many millions of people living within 500 miles of his place, he figures there's plenty of demand.
Demand is sufficient, in fact, to support more mini-bale producers, he believes.
“I don't need somebody doing it in my backyard, but there's a lot of room,” he says.
Converting a conventional baler into a mini-baler isn't difficult, he adds. “Anybody who's worked with balers can do the same thing I did.”
More important, he says, is identifying the market and making bales that fit it.
“You can build bales all day long and fill your barn with them, but until you learn how to sell them, don't bother making even one,”he advises. “If you want to make some money, build what the public wants.”
The next step is to make the bales look as nice as possible,using clean, bright straw.
“If you've got a good product and present it well, it'll sell,” says Thering.