12 March 1999


By Mike Williams

BIG balers, both round and square, have grabbed the lions share of UK sales, but there are still plenty of places where conventional small bales are easier to use.

The big sales slump for conventional balers came during the 1980s as the switch to round bales reached its peak. Agricultural Engineers Association (AEA) figures show the market shrinking to between 250 and 300 machines a year by the early 1990s and at that stage it seemed small balers would soon disappear.

Since then the market has levelled out. Last year, when demand for virtually all machines was seriously low, conventional baler sales held up better than most at about 225. AEA chief economist Chris Evans sees future sales remaining steady at 200-300 units a year to farmers and contractors who have a special need for small bales.

The number of small baler makes has also shrunk, leaving Claas, John Deere, Galignani, Massey Ferguson, New Holland and Welger dominating the market, with Welger claiming top place in the sales charts.

Another result of the small balers fall from fashion is less investment in technical development as manufacturers concentrate on machines with more sales potential. But the 1997 launch of two new Massey Ferguson models with an unconventional in-line layout shows there is still scope for design change in small balers.

New Massey

Brothers Martin and Edward Bodman chose a new Massey when they replaced one of their two Welger small balers last year. The two small balers and three New Holland D1010 big square balers are used in their contracting business – but they would prefer to stop making the small bales and standardise on the D1010s.

The Bodmans run the baling business from their 70ha (176 acre) Knights Leaze Farm, Urchfont, Devizes, Wilts, and most of the bales they make are sold through their hay and straw business. They run three trucks delivering to livestock farms all over the south west, and it is demand from customers which keeps the small balers busy.

"We much prefer the big bales," says Edward. "The baling rate is higher, we can handle the bales more efficiently and we get more weight on our trucks as well, but a lot of our customers still prefer small bales and our job is to supply what our customers want.

"The situation is changing. It used to be all small bales, but a lot of our customers have switched to big bales and this is still happening – but I dont think we will get rid of small bales completely because there is always going to be a demand." he says. "We have some customers who buy nearly all their hay or straw in big bales, but still have a special need for just a few small bales."

Last year the Bodmans small balers – a four-year-old Welger 730 and a new Massey Ferguson MF139 – made nearly 70,000 bales, including about 20,000 hay bales. The customers who choose these rather than big D1010 bales are in three main groups.

Pig farmers are important customers for straw and some of them find small bales much easier to use. The customer list also includes riding stables and other horse businesses, many of which have remained loyal to the small bale, particularly for hay. The Bodmans admit that big hay bales would create problems in many stable yards.

The third category of small bale users is some of the stock farms in the south west, and many of these would find big square D1010 bales of straw hard to use in their traditional yards and buildings.

"A lot of them are really restricted to using small bales," says Edward. "And in some cases they dont have a tractor and loader which will handle a big bale."

Customers who have their straw in small bales are currently charged £7/t extra, but Martin says this does not cover the additional costs which, he says, includes slower work rates in the field, where a small baler deals with 10 tonnes of straw per hour instead of 15tph from a D1010. Field clearance is also faster with big bales, as each big bale loaded is about 750kg instead of 500kg with their home-made "flat-16" loader attachment for small bales.

Transport costs

"Another big difference is in our transport costs," he says. "We put 20t of big straw bales on a load but only 16t of small bales, and thats a big difference on a long- distance delivery. We also get a faster unloading time for big bales, which means a shorter day for the drivers. The economics all favour big bales, but for a lot of our customers the practical advantages of small bales are more important and I am sure we will always need at least one small baler."

To streamline their small bale handling system, Edward and his brother design and build much of their own equipment, which normally includes a fleet of eight special trailers – currently reduced to seven after one was stolen. These are based on modified truck chassis with dual wheels front and rear, a 7ftx34ft steel mesh bed, plus racks at the front , rear and along one side to support the load of 360 of the 19in wide bales.

A flat-8 sledge groups the bales, and the Bodmans home-made "flat-16" grab is used for loading and unloading the trailers. Compared with the standard flat-8 system, the 16-bale grab doubles the work rate. For road travel, the 13ft 6in wide grab has a second set of attachment points allowing it to be mounted sideways on the telehandler.

First season verdict

And the verdict after their first season with the new Massey baler is a thumbs-up. The Bodmans chose the MF139 because they liked the in-line concept and because of the service back-up from their local MF dealer. Apart from some initial problems with the flywheel shearbolt, the new baler performed well.

Density and throughput are both as good as the Welger, they say – which is high praise as the Bodmans are Welger enthusiasts following their experience with seven Welger conventional balers. The in-line layout also gives the Massey baler special advantages, they say. It is handier for transport, and it is also correctly set up to begin baling as soon as it enters the field. &#42

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