Thursday, August 29, 2013

Small Bales and Modern Ag

Each year we bale a few small square bales of hay. We use them to coax the cows into the pens in the fall, feed them to the ewes in the lambing jugs, any animal in the sick pen, and the occasional seat at a church event. We don’t bale very many, but we do bale enough to make me appreciate my big round baler.
I wasn’t very old when Dad got his first big round baler, I kind of remember him putting up thousands of small square bales each summer and feeding them out in the winter. There were a number of years he baled, loaded, unloaded and stacked the bales pretty much by himself. Each summer I marvel at this feat after stacking my few hundred bales in the loft, with help.
Sure there would be some benefits to feeding small square bales. I would bet that my hay wastage would drop significantly. You better believe that if I go through all that work and pain to handle all that hay, the sheep and cows are going to savor every mouthful. I would also guess that the hay would be much better quality, after all much of it would be stored in my loft away from the elements.
The most obvious benefit would probably be to my health. I keep trying to sell my friends on the great “burn” a session of unloading small square bales gives you. It is far better than any workout at any gym (of course this is all theory on my part). Think of all the calories you would burn and all the muscle groups that get worked out. I know if I fed all small square bales I would be in much, much better shape.
Of course in reality, the labor saving benefits of handling big round bales versus small square bales is kind of a no brainer.  In the summer Dad and I can bale much more hay, in much less time with a great deal less labor. The labor savings and time savings are also passed along in the winter when the hay is fed to the cows. Baling small square bales and stacking them in the loft does make us all a bit nostalgic about the way farming and ranching used to be, I suppose it is a bit of a metaphor of some of the attacks we are all under in agriculture today.
Small square bales make us all remember a time when all farms were smaller. I am sure in the filter of time things seemed simpler. You worked hard, kept your nose to the grindstone, made a good living and turned around each morning and did it all over again. Farms were smaller because the work was so physical. The physical nature of the work also took its toll. Have you ever met an older farmer who didn’t have a bad back, worn out knees, hips that were shot and shoulders that didn’t work?
Then along came better technology, i.e. big round bales. This invention made it easier to bale more hay and feed that same hay to more cows with less labor. All of this technology made our jobs much easier physically and it made us much more efficient also. Sure we can think back fondly to the past, but the reality is that we need the increase output that big round bales give us. I also suspect that there will also always be a place for small square bales.
Now take this idea and apply it to other, more controversial, areas of agriculture like gmo crops. Our gmo crops allow us to utilize other new technology like no-till. Sure much like small square bales, I miss disking. There was something therapeutic about tilling up the land and the smell of newly tilled soil. However, gmo seeds allow me to be a more efficient producer while still being a good steward of the land. The world and its increased population need me to be the most efficient and productive farmer I can be.
At the end of the day, there is still a need for all types of farming and all kinds of farmers much like there is a need for all sizes and shapes of hay bales. While I would not give up my big round baler or my pick-up bale bed to go back to feeding all small square bales. There is something to be said for the good kind of tired you feel at the end of the day looking at a big stack of bales in the hay loft and I am glad for both experiences.

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