Ed Nolt did me a favor, though he didn’t know it at the time. The Pennsylvania Dutchman invented the prototype for the small square baler back in the 1930’s. His patent was soon purchased and mass produced in the 1940’s for use on farms. In marketing terms: a hot seller.

The Nolt-inspired baler was a one-person operation for gathering and binding cured forage into a bale that could be easily handled and neatly stacked in a barn. This was real progress from the days of manually picking-up loose hay in the field, loading it onto a horse-drawn wagon, then hoisting it into the barn with large hooks on a rope and pulley system.

The small square baler was a required component of livestock farms for many years. Improvements to the baler included more reliable bale knotting mechanisms (although some might argue this point) and automatic bale throwers, which negated the need for someone to stack bales on a flat wagon.

Another one bites the dust.

Another one bites the dust.

Today, the small square baler hasn’t quite reached extinction status, but certainly has found a place on the endangered species list. Sales of small square balers have plummeted in the past 25 years, although a relatively low, but constant number are still sold to hobby and horse farm owners.Taking the place of the small square baler are machines that condense hay into large packages, both round and square (actually rectangular for the math purist). Further, more forage is harvested as higher moisture haylage. Mechanization and efficiency are the names of the game in the same way that most popcorn is now prepared in the microwave.

There was a time not so long ago when large hay packages were discounted in value at local hay auctions. Now, it is the small squares that are often least sought.

Improved technology is necessary for economic survival. That said, as my hairs become fewer and grayer, more time is spent thinking about what got me to this point in life. I owe a lot to the small square bale and the machines that make them.

My first job interview at the age of 15 years was done while unloading a hay wagon; this involved throwing bales over the sides of a “kicker-bale” wagon and into the hay mow. I’m sure my prospective employer, the owner of this small Northeast Ohio dairy farm, was more interested in my bale unloading capabilities than the answers I was giving to his questions.

With my first job secured at the unskilled farm worker rate of $1.25 per hour, I spent the next six years working on this farm where all the hay and straw were baled into small squares; the lone silo being reserved for corn silage.

During these years I perfected my baling, bale walking, bale stacking, and wagon-backing skills. The mental and physical aspects of making hay literally sucked me into a career in agriculture. The personal satisfaction obtained from starting the day with acres of cut forage and ending at night with clean fields and a neatly stacked mow of hay is unmatched. It was hard work, but I couldn’t get enough of baling hay. I know…not normal.

After my first stint at college, I sought employment on a dairy farm. This time I didn’t have to unload a wagon during the job interview, but fate again intervened and I found myself on a large, diversified dairy and grain farm in Southern Illinois where small square baling was a significant component of summer activities. We had hundreds of acres of alfalfa and wheat straw to bale in a region where heat and humidity are as much a part of summer as the Fourth of July. They gladly handed the responsibility to me.

For the next eight years I earned my PhD in hay baling. I had upgraded to wire-tie bales and perfected the use of the hay hook, which still hangs in my garage today. Alas, my thirst for forage crop information finally took me away from the hay mow and back to the college classroom, but the lessons learned from fourteen summers of baling hay have served me well in all of life’s subsequent endeavors.

There won’t be another generation of youth who will know the rhythmic sounds of the bale plunger and knotter, or associate summers with baling hay of the small square vintage. That’s okay; our teachers change over time. As for me, I just want to say thanks to Ed Nolt. His small square baler gets a chunk of credit for who I am…at least the good stuff.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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