Everybody has a unique story of how and why they made agriculture their chosen career. I developed my interest by making, stacking, throwing, walking on, and feeding small square bales. My assortment of favorite hay hooks still hangs in the garage. For 14 years of my early adult life, small square bales defined my summers and eventually led me to the forage industry.

I get it. Since my early haymaking days, technology, efficiency, and less available labor have pushed forage producers to large packages, both round and square. Over time, farms got bigger and mechanical means were developed to handle and process the larger hay packages. The small square bale became a tough sell outside of the hobby farmer or horse market.

With the boom in larger hay packages, small square balers were left to rust in the back 40. Some manufacturers quit making them while those that did made very few and had no interest in devoting research and development dollars into the product.

Though the small square baler didn’t become extinct, the term endangered specie comes to mind. Fewer and fewer farm and ranch kids grew up hearing the rhythmic sounds of the plunger and knotter or had the need to patch blue jean thighs after every new hay cutting.

I wonder what Ed Nolt is thinking these days. Nolt, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, invented the prototype for the small square baler back in the 1930s. His patent was purchased and mass produced during the 1940s. It was an instant hit on farms across the United States.

Though the small square bale will never again reach national prominence, it’s not time to issue last rites. In fact, if you’re one of those hay growers like Clayton Geralds (see page 22) who has figured out a way to efficiently bale and handle small squares, welcome to what has now evolved into a profitable niche market. Given the same forage quality, small square bales can bring $50 to $100 more per ton simply based on their size.

So what’s going on?

It’s true that operations have gotten bigger; a negative market trend for small square bales. However, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census, it’s also true that the number of small hobby-type farms is exploding. These are the type of operations that only want or can handle the smaller hay packages.

Couple this with a horse industry and certain export markets that have always desired the small square bale and you have a very stable if not growing market. Included in this market is the retail feed supplier who more often than not will only be selling the small squares.

The second factor playing into the small square bale price premium is that there are fewer farmers making them. In many areas of the U.S., you’d be hard pressed to find even one. This leaves more of the potential marketplace to the relatively few who have stayed the course, taken advantage of handling technologies (see page 18), and can provide large quantities of small square bales to hay brokers and retailers.

Even though small square bales will never reach the status they enjoyed 40 or 50 years ago, I suspect they will always play a role in filling what now appears to be a stable market. Perhaps more at risk of extinction are the hay hook, hay elevator, and worn-out blue jean thighs.

This editorial appeared in the January 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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