Tips to Prevent Baler Breakdowns

Here's How to Keep Your Hay Baler Rolling

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
No matter the baler, at some point, it will introduce you to unending stress. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)

DTN/Progressive Farmer's Ask the Mechanic Columnist Steve Thompson knows balers and baler maintenance. He wrote this column to help those who use balers to fend off problems before they happen. "This article looks at some of the things that give balers a bad attitude," says Steve. "You won't always find answers in the owner's manual. These come from the 'manual of experience.'"

OK, Steve, from your manual of experience, take it away.


For all the equipment we pull out into the field, why is it that our biggest concern is the baler? I've baled almost 2 million bales with a square baler, and I learned one thing for sure: Whether it is a big round baler, small round baler, big square baler, small square baler, twine or wire or net, at some point, they will be the source of unending stress.

I've had the flywheel come off a baler and take off through the field, run through my neighbor's fence, and spook his cows. I've had gnats get on me so bad under a baler that they stopped up my nose (and the tractor's radiator). I've had an almost-new box of wire bounce out of a baler into a county road bar ditch and dispense wire for almost a mile. When changing wire, I've had fire ants send their secret signal to bite my bottom all at once, while mosquitoes dive-bombed my ears -- all while trying to find the pliers that fell into a crack in the ground. No doubt about it, a hay baler will get on your last nerve.


How the hay is prepared for baling plays a big part in baler performance. How the crop is cut, conditioned, tedded and raked are key to production. A baler can be blamed for poor performance because of poorly shaped windrows, improper baler setup, high moisture content or even improper wheel spacing of the tractor. Never run over the windrow with your tractor wheels.

Humidity will always slow the drying process, and the baler is always looking at moisture content to make a nice bale. Allow Mother Nature to be your boss in the hay field. Since a baler's sole interest in life is breaking down, we don't need to encourage it by asking it to bale hay too high in moisture.

Keep in mind that a wheel rake will windrow rocks and clods -- it has to because its tines stay on the ground and are driven by the ground. Balers do not like rocks. Rocks blow holes in baler belts, dent starting roll drums, and chip or break square baler knives. Remember, what is a baler's sole interest in life? Breaking down. A steady diet of rocks and sticks will get you there quickly.


In most conditions, it is a good idea to oil the link chains on your baler. Use good chain oil. This is an oil that will cling to the chain. Always keep chains adjusted. This will extend the life of your sprockets and idlers. When a chain gets worn, it is a good idea to replace it, or it will prematurely wear the sprockets. When it's time to change the sprockets, it is also a good idea to replace the chain.

Since a square baler must be timed, many farmers dread the job of shortening the chain for fear of losing the correct timing. To avoid losing the proper timing of the baler, simply rotate the machine until the chain is loaded on the opposite side of the idler. Then, change the links as needed on the loose side of the chain, and you will not lose your timing.

One more thing: That little clip that many master links use today -- always install it with the closed end in the direction of travel.

One of the most common service calls on a square baler is "The baler is beginning to shear flywheel pins for no reason." "No reason" means the operator, the hay haulers and the neighbor have all worked on it and have not been able to fix it. Most of the time, the plunger stop protecting the needles is hit by the plunger or plunger crank. It saves the needles but shears the flywheel pin.

There are generally a couple of explanations. One is the needle brake is too loose, allowing the needles to "drift" into the bale case before or when the baler trips to tie but before it begins to tie. The second probable cause is loose chains that directly or indirectly drive the knotter or twister stack. As these chains and sprockets wear, the needle timing slows, forcing the needles back home slower. This leaves the plunger stop in the bale case or closer to the crank on the transmission longer. The needles return slower, but the plunger location never changes because it is driven directly by the gear case gears.

Adjust these chains and check the plunger clearance of the plunger stop by tripping the tying system and rolling the baler over by manually turning the flywheel while looking for clearance of the plunger stop. It should be out of the way by a couple of inches before the plunger or the crank gets to it. To check the needle brake, grab the needle frame (after tripping it to tie) and swing the needle frame back and forth. It should swing with a snug drag.

Belts are easier to deal with because, most of the time, they will not affect timing and can actually absorb shock and slip when necessary. When they have worn enough that the bottom of the belt is rubbing on the center of the sheave, it's time to replace the belt -- and maybe the sheave. A belt that is "bottomed out" has very little driving force; that driving force comes from contact with the sides of the belt against the sheave. When replacing multiple belts, always replace them in a set. Never overtighten a belt. You can usually tell if you have it adjusted correctly (or not) by the smoke and the smell of a burning belt.

One more little thing: During the winter, it is better to release the tension on belts using spring tension for traction. I even open the gate on my round baler a couple of feet during the winter.


Installing the wrong grade of shear pins or failing to check slip clutches can lead to catastrophic failure. Baler engineers design a machine around load protection. If you are shearing pins, getting a harder pin is not the right answer. Buy shear pins only from an authorized dealer for your baler.

Always check slip clutches after the baler has been stored, especially if stored outside. Removing spring tension and separating clutch linings from the pressure plate is the key to making sure the clutches are not stuck. I've seen stuck clutches and incorrect shear protection twist a driveline like braided hair and blow up gear cases.

You know that gauge wheel on a John Deere square-baler pickup? If you've ever wondered why it is always bent out (along with the outside band), it's because that small bolt and nut that holds it on is actually a John Deere shear pin with a part number. It is very soft and will snap off when (not if) the gauge wheel hits a gatepost or tree without any damage to it or the baler.


The first thing to remember about keeping a hay baler in good working condition is the last thing you did with it. So many times, after the last bale of the season, the baler in not cleaned up -- including the bale chamber and underneath the tying system -- for the winter. Worse than that, it is left outside in the weather.

A hay baler has a film of grit all over it, not to mention the hay tucked into all those tight and tiny locations. If this crud is not cleaned off the metal, the acid from the soil will eat up the metal. Moisture is worse. Snow on a baler makes for a beautiful winter picture but trouble next spring.

If the baler must be left outside, blow it off, wash it off and store the wire or twine inside. Smear grease on the twine discs, billhooks, twister hooks and twister shafts, and spray the chains with a chain lube. Rusty wire and bad twine will give your baler a stomachache.

Just like anything else, baling hay gets easier as you get familiar with what a baler can do and what a baler cannot do. Remember two things when you are out there in the field: The first is that the weather is in control of your hay crop.

And the second? Never brag on a hay baler. Oh, and stay good friends with your neighbor. You never know when you may need to borrow his baler.


You can read Steve's columns every month in Progressive Farmer's digital edition (click on the "Resources" tab to find the magazine and inside, Steve's Ask the Mechanic columns). Write Steve Thompson at Ask the Mechanic, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email:

Dan Miller