Small scale haymaking can be very frustrating. It seems that one can either make tiny quantities of hay with hand tools like a scythe and manual hay rake and carry it in on carts or wheelbarrows, or, at considerable expense outfit yourself with an arsenal of “farm-scale” agricultural equipment, which will take up much space, and may be overkill for your needs.
I only have a few hay-eating animals: two dairy cows and a heifer at present, but I like to be as self-sufficient as practical and seldom find bought hay up “Jersey standards.” When I make my own hay, I control not only the quality but also the kind of hay in order to provide proper nutrition (which varies in dairy cattle depending upon lactation status). Besides, forage grows faster in spring than the animals can possibly keep up with. Mowing at least once is necessary to prevent a mess of weeds, so I figure I might as well make hay out of it. After two years I’ve found that springtime “overgrowth” can provide all the hay that is necessary to get through a typical winter in Southern Indiana. I make single cutting from most of the pasture paddocks every spring and haven’t had to buy hay for two years.
The least efficient part of my hay making process is gathering and stacking. They way I do it is to drive my family vehicle, a 12-passenger Ford van, towing a large utility trailer and to pile hay on top of the trailer, then back the trailer up to the place where I want to stack the hay in the barn. The problem here is that it’s a lot of back and forth since the hay is loose, uncompressed, and tends to slide off hastily made piles on a trailer. This takes time and causes unnecessary soil compaction. Loose hay is also slow to move to animals inside a barn, because only small forkfuls can be carried, and if there is any wind or it has to be carried outside, much hay can simply blow away. Hay balers help this situation. If the baler is portable enough to be carried down a windrow of hay, the hay can be compressed in the field, so fewer trips back and forth will be needed. Also, stacking rectangular bales of hay on a flat utility trailer is easy and efficient. Another advantage is that a much more hay can be stored in a given amount of space. For many people this may be the most important reason to bale.
Not wanting to invest thousands of dollars in a hay baler which would take up a lot of space and need a good-sized tractor to power and pull it (which I don’t own), I tried to find other ways to bale hay. I came across plans for manual balers used to make pine straw bales. I began to build one of these and stopped about half-way through after I realized they are incredibly slow and not good for baling hay. They require the hay to be top-loaded into a narrow rectangle, which is difficult and back breaking, and they are incredibly slow as the lever arm needs to be used to compress the hay many times. Then I found videos on YouTube of folks stuffing hay in boxes and stepping on it. I knew there had to be a better way than this, though I do think that method works better than pine straw balers. That is when I came across a curious video of some Russian men making hay with this very curious but decrepit looking manual hay baler. The design is a vast improvement over the pine-straw types for a few reasons. It has large wheels and is portable, so it can move down the windrow and allow easy baling in the field and rapid collection of the hay on a trailer or wagon. It also loads horizontally from the back, which is easy on your back, and is the logical position for the baler to be relative to a windrow of hay. Finally, the very great compound leverage generated by the design makes a single compression stroke all that is necessary. It is also easy to thread, since the hay needle is driven at about waist height horizontally. It is even easier if baler wire is used instead of twine, since a needle and tying isn’t necessary. Two practiced people can generate an impressive number of hay bales using this device. Granted, it is not nearly as fast as a powered hay baler with a hay collector, since all the hay needs to be picked up with a fork and stuffed into the back, but that is a whole different ballgame. This thing takes up hardly any floor space if stored on its end, and was put together for less than $150. Being made of wood, it will not rust or need painting. Maybe just a coat of linseed oil.
General view of the lever mechanism
I built this “Russian-style” manual hay baler for around $50 of 1” rough-sawn Ash boards, two 2×10″ pine boards, and a scrap piece of oak 2×4.” I strongly suggest that one use a hardwood like Ash or Poplar to make this since softwoods won’t provide the necessary durability. Using very hard woods like Hickory or Oak may result in it being unnecessarily heavy and these woods don’t typically take screws without pre-drilling. I’ve found Ash, which is plentiful and cheap where I live due to the Emerald Ash borer, works very well. I get it from a local lumbermill. The boards are not good for furniture because of various imperfections, but they are fine for this purpose. Use good quality self-tapping wood/construction screws. Do not even think of using nails. It is not necessary to use deck screws since treated wood should not be used in this project. I used 2”, 2.5” and 3” screws. This is because my 1” boards were around 13/16ths or after they came out of my portable planer. 6″ and 3″ widths were mostly used, with two 9.5″ width boards on the sides. If you use thicker or thinner (don’t recommend) lumber then you will need to adjust screw size.
It is important to keep the interior of the compression box a consistent dimension (mine is 14×18” inside the box). This means that the 6’ boards on the top and bottom and 3” boards on the sides will need at least one good, straight edge. There are two ways to achieve this. One is to screw the board to a straight board and run it through a table-saw, the other is to use a straight edge clamped to the board and a circular saw. I did the latter. The rest of the lumber can be rather sloppy so long as the smooth side faces the hay. Friction is the enemy.
The boards on the bottom are 6.5’ and are about 5’ on top. The ram compresses the bale from about 56” to about 32”, resulting in a 32” long bale that is about 14” x 18” on end, or a typical small two-string sized bale. The lever points are both 24” between pivots and the lever is 7’ long. You can adjust all these to suit your needs, but you should “try” it first with cheap 2×4” lumber if it you since you may find it unsuitable for various reasons. I am 6’ tall and made the lever as high as I could reach. If you are shorter you should consider adjusting downwards or using smaller wheels. I put greased bronze bearings in the pivot points and used ½” bolts. This added some expense but I think it is worth it.
I used two 20” plastic no-flat cart wheels/tires with ¾ bearings. These wheels are sturdy and light and allow the cart to move easily. Pay close attention to the way the ram and door are constructed. They are where the hay wire/twine is threaded and if they are not the right size you will experience binding. More than a 1/4” on a side will cause unacceptable binding. The “skirts” on the ram are very important to have sized correctly because they keep the ram aligned and if they are under-sized will result in aggravating and faulty ram action. If they are oversized, you won’t be able to get the ram in there or it will jam up as soon as some bit or hay or dust gets in there. You want to make sure to have slots in the bottom for dust and hay to fall through for this reason.
The hinges and draw-type locks I bought at Menards. They cost $4 each and work well, but other ways may be better. Since these draw locks tighten as they close, it makes it so you don’t have to push the door as you close it, which is nice.
When loading it works better if you take smaller forkfuls and really push them in. A piece of wood, like a scrap of 2×4, will keep the ram from backing out too far. Once it is stuffed as much as it can be with hand pressure, close the door, and then pull down on the ram. I adjusted my ram so that when the lever “cams over” the center pivot it just locks into place. This will compress the hay to about 3/5ths of its original size. If you make you box longer, you can make it compress to ½ size or less. Once the hay is compressed you thread the wire or twine (use a long piece of twisted wire as a hay needle) top and bottom and tie it off. The best knot I have found is to tie a loop on one end, and then pull the other end through and then tie it off. It is much easier and faster to use wire. No need for a needle, and you simply twist the ends together like a twist tie instead of having to tie a knot, but you will need to bring a wire cutter.
Once the bale is tied then open the door and pull it out the back. This is where having nice smooth boards will pay off, as the amount of friction can be surprising, particularly if you choose to make your compression greater than 3/5ths or the hay you are making is sticky. Grass hay tends to be slippery. Legumes tend to be sticky. Hay made out of oats or wheat can be very slippery and these are easy to bale, as is straw, but sorghum-sudangrass hay can be very sticky if it is a little on the wet side. I find that most hays work well enough, but I do not like baling pure legume hay (like alfalfa or red-cover). I find that grass-legume mix hay works much better, and the animals like it better, too.
Now the windrows will be converted into lines of bales, which can be easily picked up and stacked on a trailer or wagon or in a barn or shed. It is probably not worthwhile to bale all hay this way, especially if you can stack hay near the feeding area and fork from the pile to the manger, but for hay stored remotely or for hayfields which are distant from the storage area, this can make sense for the small-scale homesteading haymaker.