Giant stacks of bales are everywhere around the countryside at this time of year. They’re either looming large in Dutch barns, in farmyards or in fields.
The straw provides livestock bedding for the winter months ahead and is the secondary part of arable farmers’ crops after the grain has been harvested. Straw bales kept in good condition can offer farmers a reasonable additional income on top of their cereal price or more prevalently at present provide them with a premium on what is currently a much deflated return as wheat prices have plummeted.
One of the problems with giant stacks is in keeping the straw dry during poor weather conditions. For a number the answer is simply to shove it all in a barn but for those who don’t have that facility and who can’t afford the expense of putting up a new building the alternatives have been to use tarpaulins or polythene sheeting. That’s how David Sowray has been covering them, until this year, at Humberton Farm near Helperby that he runs in partnership with his brother Jonathan.
“We bale a lot of straw, somewhere between 2,500-3,000 quadrant bales a year and we store quite a proportion outside. We stack them about seven bales high and each bale is about a metre high.
“Rainfall usually means that you lose the top bale in each stack as the tarpaulin just can’t cope with the amount of pooling that happens at the top of the area covered and that stretches over a number of top bales in seven-high stacks. “The pooling can amount to several hundred gallons of water and eventually the tarpaulin splits and in some cases you don’t just lose all of the top bales, you also lose the second in each stack.”
David had a ‘Eureka!’ moment after visiting friends in Australia in January. He noticed something different about their bale stacks. At the top of each tower was a sheet of moulded plastic with ridges at each side and fastened into the top bale by large plastic screws. They were covering hay bales and David found that they were called Hay Caps invented by Australian farmer Philip Snowden.
“I just thought it was such a brilliant idea. When you cover the top bales with a tarpaulin the surface water tends to stay at the top rather than run away. The Hay Caps have a slight camber that runs the water off into the ridges at either side and shoots it to the floor without affecting the rest of the bales below. The Hay Caps also butt up to each other too offering little opportunity for water to get between each top bale.”
David believes that the health and safety aspects of Hay Caps is bound to interest those who have at times risked life and limb putting on a tarpaulin cover.
“Tarpaulins are usually put on when the bales have been stacked. That can be dangerous as well as being both time consuming and labour consuming as it invariably means you need a group of people to put it over the stack.
“The Hay Caps are fitted to the top bale at ground level, anchoring the cap with fastenings at either end of the bale. The top bale is then lifted to the top of the stack by a telescopic handler eliminating any personal risk.
“Every inch of rain that falls on your bale is the equivalent of 75 litres of water. Between August 2013 and April this year we had 20 inches of rain and using tarpaulins to cover we didn’t just lose the top bale of each stack but also the one below.
“We can sometimes still use the top bales by sticking them in the yard for the pigs but to be honest it’s just a slushy mess and last year’s high rainfall rendered even that useless.
“The other problem with using a tarpaulin is that as you take bales out of the stack there is generally a need to take the tarpaulin on and off. With the Hay Cap being attached to just the top bale there’s no such requirement. Each cap can be fitted by one person inside a minute and lifted to the top of the stack the next minute.”
David purchased 250 Hay Caps for his own farm this winter and shipped over another 720 to act as a UK distributor. He’s already had success with them as Mark Smith of agricultural contractors HACS of Ripley has added his own testimonial.
“Hay Caps solve three problems for me in one go. They totally eliminate the working at height risk that is usually associated with the traditional method of sheeting outside stacks; they free up valuable shed space to allow for more cost effective use of buildings; and they protect the straw and minimise deterioration from weathering.”
While the product is called Hay Caps rather than Straw Caps, that’s because it was devised for use predominantly on hay bales in Australia. David is keen to stress that they are very much straw caps too and includes his own strap line ‘cover your hay and straw the safe way’.
David and Jonathan’s farm at Humberston is tenanted from the Crown Estate and runs to around 530 acres. They grow predominantly wheat varieties such as Diego, Grafton and this year Relay. In a good year such as 2011, the best David has had, they averaged over five tonnes an acre.
He tells of how flooding has affected the farm in recent years.
“My father Stephen was born on the farm in 1940 and up until 1980 the farm had only flooded once. In 2000 it flooded three times and has become more of a problem. We can have up to 200 acres under water at one time. If it comes in the summer we can lose a significant percentage of our crops. We’ve even had a combine marooned.”
David and Jonathan also have 3,500 pigs on a bed and breakfast basis for neighbours JC Lister Farms.
Water and the control of it plays a large part in their lives and David firmly believes that his new-found product Hay Caps will at least assist in alleviating the stress in one of those important areas by keeping his straw dry.