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The Ag Engineering Update

The latest and greatest from your livestock engineers.
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Unrolling Hay

Round bales are a cost effective way to purchase the hay. However, there are some concerns with feeding these large round bales, and sometimes people look for a way to feed part of a roll at a time or spread the roll over a larger area. For animals in a barn, often feed is supplied in a trough, making hay bales inappropriate. Some people feeding in a field do not have hay rings or do not like the damage done to an area of the field when feeding in rings. This year energy required for animals to maneuver through the mud around hay rings can be significant, and for very young animals the mud can be dangerous. Also, for younger animals traditional hay rings may be so wide that the animals cannot reach the center of the bale in the center of the ring.

This year we have been unrolling hay to feed some feeder heifers on the farm. For the feeding set-up we use (eat-through panels), whole bales often have extra wastage due to the time it takes the heifers to eat through the bales; when we put out whole round bales we are putting out enough hay for 2 weeks at a time. Also, the younger cattle seem to have trouble pulling out the hay when bales are tight. Unrolling the bales allows us to put out enough for a few days at a time without restricting intake or creating extra wastage.

In looking for an unrolling option that would work for me, I found a number of technologies that could be used to unroll hay or straw for feeding or bedding. I found the diverse technologies fascinating and wanted to highlight some of the different designs. I have them listed from least to most sophisticated. Pictures are included at the beginning of the blog.  There is one picture of unrolling a bale using manpower and two pictures for each paragraph describing a type of mechanical hay unroller below. No pictures were chosen due to preference for any particular brand or company, just to highlight the specific technology.

The first two methods of unrolling don't require anything but some manpower. A pitchfork can be used to pull hay off a bale in flakes. A whole bale or just a portion can but placed where it is needed. The second method makes use of gravity. A bale of hay is set at the top of the hill, twine is cut and the bale pushed down the hill. This works well if the bale breaks apart easily and the hill is long. Otherwise a good portion of the bale ends up together at the bottom (often in a fence or waterway)! Both of these non-mechanized methods are time and labor intensive.

The first mechanical design uses the ground to unroll the hay. The bale is held in the center and as the vehicle (tractor or truck) moves forward, the outside of the bale sticks to the ground and is left behind. It is the same concept as unrolling down a hillside, but you can unroll uphill or on level ground. You can even unroll part of a roll in one location and the remainder in a different location. However this technology only works when you want to unroll on the ground at the same width as the roll of hay and in a thin layer. This results in unrolling that is not typically ideal for feeding in a barn (trough) nor for bedding an area.

The next technology is a hydraulic unroller. The spear works similar to a traditional hay spear, but the base of the spear spins using hydraulics. The spear can be attached to a front-end loader or 3 point hitch attachment. The hay flies off as the bale is rotated due to a lack of centripetal force when the twine is cut. This works well if you are trying to unroll over a fence or trying to create piles of hay rather than a long row. Similar to the previous design this unrolls the hay in a wide footprint, making it not ideal for feeding in most barns. However, in some situations I could see this design being useful for bedding.

The next method also uses hydraulics to unroll the hay. These unrollers also fit on a front-end loader or 3 point hitch attachment. Unlike the previous spear style of unroller, the bale of hay sits in this type of unroller and spins due to chains rotating the bale. Tines along the chain drive break up the outside of the bale (similar to how a pitchfork will break the outside layer of a bale) and it drops from the side or back depending on the set-up purchased. I have never seen one of these operated in person but I find the design very interesting. They appear as though they would work well for feeding in a barn. Many companies selling these attachments are from outside the US, but there are a few US options. Many of the companies also offer additional attachments if someone want to bed with this type of unroller. My largest concern with these is that the metal housing for the bale is quite heavy (probably safe to assume at least 1500lbs). That requires a large tractor, which could create more ruts if feeding in a field. Also, that attachment weight causes a shift in center of gravity of the tractor, which needs to be considered.

The final method of unrolling hay breaks up the roll of hay. Usually knife bars cut off sections of the bale. These types of technologies work well for farmers looking to feed many animals or distribute bedding over large areas. They are the most expensive but they do have an axle, which provided a better weight distribution and can reduce wear and tear on front-end loaders. For larger producers feeding in a barn, these are quite useful. However for those producers feeding in a field, this is an awkward technology to use.

Image of horses feeding on snow: Byford

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