How to Unroll Round Bales


Thirty of the more than 100 round bales of mulch hay that will feed my starved back acres have been delivered. The rest are awaiting the arrival of a new trailer — but as the farmer, Todd, said with a smile, “These should keep you busy.” Indeed.

The first thing to do was mow the weeds where I planned to spread the mulch. Very little wants to grow on my sour soil except weeds, briars, and black cherry and poplar saplings. “Popple,” as it is known here, can shoot up six feet in one season, and the rest aren’t far behind. So mowing is essential and meanwhile adds to the mulch litter. Towing a cart behind the lawn mower into which I toss all rocks, broken logs, sticks, and stumps, between other chores I can mow about an acre a day.

(Though from a distance the field looks green, up close one sees the large lunar patches of bare soil. As I mow, I am enveloped in a boiling cloud. Dirt settles in my hair, powders the surface of my clothes, and turns the wrinkles in my face into black seams. It clogs my nostrils and even forms a thin ridge of mud across my teeth. But I don’t much mind. Mowing is always satisfying. It brings the same pleasure as ironing — creating order out of rumples.)

So now I have two acres cut, with 20 sagging, half-rotted 4’x4′ round bales dotted around. Each weighs hundreds of pounds. How to unroll them alone, without help or a tractor?

I figured my old pickup truck could provide the horsepower. I just needed something to use as an axle.

I first thought of a length of reinforcing rod, but quickly realized that rebar would be too whippy and light. Next I considered iron pipe — stronger, but still too prone to bending, and the blunt hollow end would be tough to force through a bale. After browsing at the local lumberyard I came home with a six-foot iron pry bar/post hole tamper for $35.

One end of the bar is a sharp shovel point. The other, tamping end, offers a wide surface for hammering.

Using my sledgehammer, with considerable puffing I can drive the bar through the center of a bale and out the other side. If my bales were fresh and tight, I would get a friend with a metal grinder to trim the shovel point to a needlenose, but with the rotting mulch bales the tool works fine as it is.

Hearing of my project, the salesman at the lumberyard told me I had to build a wooden frame to hold my axle. I always tend to heed such authoritative male pronouncements. It was only when my wooden frame instantly tore to bits that I realized nothing made of light spruce was going to shift a bale weighing 400 lbs. The towing stress had to remain on the iron bar, not on lag bolts.

In the end my answer was simple. I used two scrap 2x4s sandwiched together as a spacer bar, and a 35-foot length of old climbing rope. Voilà — a cheap and easy towing harness.

The rope is threaded through holes drilled in the spacer bar, and knotted on the far side of the holes to hold it square. A loop is knotted in each rope end, to pass over the ends of the iron axle.

Another knot, in the middle, loops over the tow hitch on the truck.

Hit the gas, and watch the hay unspool in the rear view mirror.

Each bale makes a long, lovely windrow.

In less than two minutes your axle and towing harness are bare.

The hardest part of the entire operation is driving the bar through each round bale. Worst is when the bale has fallen off the hay wagon to land on end; in that case, simply to tip it into rolling position I have to stand on a milk crate in the back of my truck and swing the heavy sledgehammer over my head.

Any way you slice it, it’s a workout. After four bales, I’m no longer holding the heavy axle in one hand and the heavy sledgehammer in the other, but propping the bar on anything I can find in the back of my truck.

As I swing the sledgehammer to connect with the end of the bar — bang! — I think of my mother and how she taught me to always keep my eye on a baseball. Also how she taught me to choke up on a heavy bat. By the end of a day, I’m so tired I’ve practically got my hands on the neck of the sledge.

The unrolled hay is about six inches thick. Though it would break down eventually, I’d rather have the hay spread more thinly, with no bare spots. My plan is to walk each windrow and spread the hay from side to side with a pitchfork.

“That’s a lot of work,” said a friend, frowning. He thinks I’m nuts.

I smiled. “I may have no skills, but I can work.”

5 Responses to How to Unroll Round Bales

  1. tricia says:

    What do you mean no skills? Oh please. You have skills and an excellent brain. Not many could have figured out how to spread those bales with a pickup truck! Who built how many things? Garage, barn, pig shed, DH sauna……raises all those animals…..on and on and on…. oh please……. Skills galore.
    How many women know what a sledge is? or what to do with that bar or realize the other bars will bend OR know that all that mulch is going to be making topsoil.
    Hugs Selden You are pretty darn awesome

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Oh, Tricia, you are so kind to me! I guess I am so accustomed to being the butt of all the guys’ good-natured jokes, making fun of my cluelessness, that I hadn’t stopped to think about what I HAVE learned. 🙂

  2. Elaine Murphy says:

    You go girl!!! Great job Selden….Most of the problem solved without expensive machinery….

  3. Jenny says:

    This is fantastic, Selden! I was so happy to read this as I have a three sandy acres in the back so poor they grow mostly wild strawberries, thistles and golden rod. I had often thought of unrolling round bales out there but couldn’t figure out how to do it.

    Now I know! thanks.

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