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The genetics of chaff

Sounds simple enough. You make the big round bales and the big square bales, then you go out, stab ’em with the spear on the loader and take them back to the buildings to store. But, nooooo. Some people just have to make it difficult.

Here’s a little-known fact. Being able to spear a bale, lift it onto some kind of transport vehicle, and then remove your spear from it, has a strong genetic element to it. Deep in all of those chromosomes, you either have both copies of the hay gene or you don’t. As a high school biology refresher, you need both copies of the recessive gene — hh — in order to move hay effectively. Even if you have one copy of the dominant gene — H — you’re not going to be able to both load and unload hay. It takes both little h’s to get the job done. That means that only one-fourth of the population has what it takes to move hay.

I’ve always thought Guy No. 1 has two copies of the dominant hay gene. His DNA is HH when it comes to handling bales. In this case, and in our operation, that’s not good. Not good at all. It means that when we go out to the field to pick up the several hundred cornstalk round bales we make each fall, GN1 should not be allowed anywhere near the loader tractor.

One of the problems is that all of our bales are made with net wrap. Unfortunately for the HH and Hh crowd, net wrap is not terribly forgiving. One wrong move and the next thing you know, you’re looking at an enormous pile of chaff in front of you. Loose chaff. Properly made cornstalk bales simply explode when the net wrap doesn’t hold. Hay won’t explode, but it doesn’t add value to it if the net wrap is torn. Showmanship counts big-time in the hay sales business.

We make somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 bales per year. That means each one is stabbed in the field, loaded on a trailer, hauled back to the buildings, stabbed again, placed in its neatly arranged row, and then stabbed again when it’s either fed or sold. Of all these bales, approximately 90% are handled by me. That’s why I’m known as The Hay Dude.

If you could buy package-damaging insurance on round bales, Guy No. 1 would be on a high-risk policy. His explosion rate with cornstalks has historically been excessive. His record with hay is better, but still not great. I’ve ridden along with him and given him pointers on the angle of the spear at the point of entry (level or slightly higher), the use of down-pressure to get in and out of the bale as you grab it, the need to keep your bale well off the ground as you transport it to the wagon (a foot, minimum), and the height at which the bale should be stabbed (always at the center of the bale or below). An effective bale handler can, in one smooth motion, drive up to the bale, stab it, and raise it off the ground without stopping. Once I get out of the tractor cab with GN1, it appears that my advice has fallen on deaf ears.

Hope springs eternal. Longtime employee Lorne has a better track record than Guy No. 1. Lorne doesn’t handle that much hay, but he does understand the concepts involved. He’s also witnessed the financial rewards of good handling and bale appearance. I was beginning to think that Lorne’s DNA is hh . . . until an incident a couple of years ago.

Steady Eddie, a longtime customer, wanted some fourth crop round bales right away. I loaded up the trailer and took the load to the elevator to weigh it before I drove to Eddie’s place. Lorne drove over with our tractor to meet me and unload the bales.

When we got there, I began to take the tie-down straps off while Lorne started to take bales off the trailer. (Remember class, always keep that load secured when you’re traveling on pavement!)

As I reached under the trailer to pull off my last strap, I was hit by something. It sounded like a torrent of incoming sleet, but it wasn’t wet. It was dry. It was also bright green. I had been drenched by a chaff thunderstorm! Oddly enough, it smelled delightful.

Once I got myself out from under the trailer, I looked up and saw the source of the occluded chaff front. A bale on the top row of the trailer was missing about half of its original volume. The missing half was scattered all over the top of the trailer and on the ground. The loader spear was sitting just above the carcass . . . at a pretty steep angle.

Lorne got out of the cab looking extremely embarrassed and sheepish. “I hit it too high and too steep,” he said before both feet hit the ground. “The spear came right through the top of it before I could stop.”

We looked around for our next step. The pile on the ground wasn’t very big — maybe the size of a feed sack. The pile on the top of the load was huge. It was also loose and not easy to move with a spear. The remaining bale was too shattered to remove without serious transport losses.

Then it hit me. Sorry. Then it occurred to me. Steady Eddie hadn’t fed his cows yet that day. He drives a milk truck as a full-time substitute driver, so he’s never home before 2:30. It was 11:00 and his cows’ round bale feeder in their pasture was empty. If we sneaked through the pasture and drove up next to the feeder, I figured we could quietly heave the bale mistake into the feeder. We’d just tell Eddie that his cows looked hungry, so we decided to feed them. It’s all part of the customer service program at Two Guys Farming, Inc.

We made our way to the bale feeder in the pasture. The big screamin’ diesel pickup doesn’t have a stealth mode. Within seconds, the entire herd of cows had surrounded the vehicle, ready to munch at will. We pushed the bale stump into the feeder and gathered up the net wrap. Then we brushed all the chaff off the load and into the feeder. We were afraid they were so heavy because they were tough. Nope. Steady Eddie was buying somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% dry matter.

We went back to the usual load-out area and emptied the rest of the trailer. There were no more problems with explosions. Lorne had immediately recognized his error with the exploding bale and wasn’t about to repeat it. “You can unload the rest,” he said.

When we switched to cornstalks that fall, we bought new, smaller spears for the loader. GN1 felt it was an equipment problem, not an equipment operator problem that was causing all the explosions. Instead of a single, large spear on the top and two shorter ones at the bottom, we now have two small-diameter spears on top plus the two bottom spears. It’s like stabbing cubes of cheese with a toothpick instead of a dowel rod. It not only spears the bales well, it also leaves no trace of the spear in the bale once it’s loaded. Talk about maximizing the showmanship!

Alas, Guy No. 1 still wasn’t able to escape the explosion curse that’s on him. He was relieved of his bale-handling duties that fall and replaced by two other people. I’m not entirely sure, but I think their DNA is Hh, maybe HH for one of them.

Big squares are the same story, but in a different package. In addition, they also add the element of stacking and balance. See? And you thought all of that geometry and physics in school was a waste of time! This hay stuff can be tougher than brain surgery. Before you try it, be sure to ask yourself, “Does my DNA say hay?”

Guy No. 2

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