PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- Owen Brown turned a trade-off into a profit thanks to some problem-solving skills.
With soil erosion a concern on his farmland southwest of Pittsfield, Brown targeted raising hay instead of row crops and trying to meet the market demand.
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"The best demand is for small square bales, and they also bring the best profit. The only problem is the labor, the intensive labor," Brown said.
He checked out the labor-saving equipment already on the market, but wasn't impressed, and decided to design his own.
Brown developed the Bale Band-It, building and selling the first unit in 1999. Since then, he's sold units in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Great Britain and Australia and, even more important to Brown, built a business based on what he calls "the big three," or GFC -- God, Family and Country.
"If you get the first one right, you'll probably get the next two right," Brown said. "The greatest gift is being able to work with your wife, your children and grandchildren."
Seventeen employees turn out the Bale Band-It units at the business headquarters on the family farm.
The Band-It, "a field packaging device that typically goes behind a standard small square baler doesn't bale anything. It groups those bales into a group of 21 (stacked) three high on the edge and seven deep, then wraps two steel bands around," Brown's son Ryan explained.
"Instead of 21 individual bales, it's one package of 21 bales that you can handle like a big bale until you're ready to feed it. Then you can bust the bands, and you're back to the big advantage of the small square bale. You're able to keep the quality of the small square bale, able to feed in small amounts, yet handle it like a big bale."
The process adds value to hay for buyers and sellers.
"Farmers get paid more because it is in a package," Brown said.
"We're also contacted by people who said they didn't know anything about the product, but the feed store, the construction crew or whoever the end consumer is demanded if they buy hay or straw from them it had to be in a bundle," Ryan Brown said. "The consumer saw the advantage."
Brown built the first five units locally, then moved to contract manufacturing before deciding to build his own plant. Tied to the cost of setting up factory fixtures and programming equipment, the company designed a new model "with all the improvements in the manufacturing process with design changes to make it faster, more dependable, with less maintenance," Brown said.
Employees produce about two machines every 1.5 weeks, building continually throughout the year to keep stock on hand. On a plant tour, Ryan Brown highlights the laser capable of cutting through metal up to one-inch thick, hand welding stations, the press brake for fabricating metal, machining centers, paint bay, sub assembly and final assembly stations.
Units then move to another building for final detailing and preparation for customer training. "We'll train them how to use the machine," he said. "It's different from most farm equipment. There is a learning curve."
Hay numbers nationally are down due to last year's drought conditions and high corn prices. "Most hay acres are people who raise livestock and feed their own hay. We see the biggest drop in what we call cash hay," or hay raised to sell, Brown said.
"It's easier to do row crops to put in the spring and take out in the fall," he said. "It's more risk when you cut hay three, four, five times a year, but the rewards are greater. Anybody can raise No. 2 bushel corn, but through hard work and management, you really can affect your bottom line in the hay business."
Brown continues to modify the Bale Band-It to boost sales and benefit consumers.
"We think there's a great future in the hay business and helping farmers be able to put up a higher percentage of high quality hay," Brown said. "It's always about helping the consumer be more profitable. Our goal is to help the small, medium-size farmer, the family farmer be more profitable in his business."