Taking the Sting Out of Harvest

Decades of experience has allowed the Matlack brothers to recognize baling and stacking inefficiencies, thus inspiring them to develop some of the most leading-edge equipment on today's market.
By Chris Hanson | November 27, 2013

Like most inventions, Stinger Inc.’s technology was born out of necessity. The company was founded after Bill and Larry Matlack’s farming operation changed from grain production to alfalfa production in 1992, and during the conversion, the brothers discovered some of the inefficiencies of baling the new crop. “We go out at night and spent a few hours baling hay, and then it would take two guys all day long to try to gather those bales up and stack them,” says Larry Matlack, cofounder of Stinger. “So my brother and I started looking for an easier way to gather the bales.” 

Through their own research and feedback from other farmers, the brothers developed their first, self-propelled biomass baling system. The first units did not actually stack bales, Matlack explains. At that point, the units would solely pick the bales up, haul them to a site and slide them off, where they were stacked by a loader tractor. Creating a nonstacking unit was justified for a number of reasons, he says. One was that customers claimed that drivers with less mechanical dexterity were able to create a better stack with nonuniform bales using a loader tractor than with an automated stacking unit. Nonuniform bales, which can cause issues in automated stacking, are created from varying field conditions, different machinery and older equipment, Matlack says.

From there, the next challenge was to make the equipment self-loading. “When we found a way to make it self-load, we built the first machine and showed it to other guys that were in the hay business,” Matlack says. “And they said, ‘you know if you build that strong enough and tough enough, we’d be interested in buying that because that’s a problem that we have.’”

As time progressed, the Matlack brothers found their market niche after speaking with hundreds of U.S. farmers. Earlier, farmers were familiar with small, rectangular bales and the specialized stacking equipment from manufacturers, such as New Holland. Larger, rectangular bales, however, lacked the technology that small-bale operations had. When larger farming operations were baling small-sized bales, there was specialized machinery that could pick and stack bales roughly as fast as the biomass was baled, Matlack says. “When they went to big, square bales, it had its advantages, but one of the disadvantages was having to go gather up those bales, and there’s no equipment to do it with. What equipment there was, was slower and smaller, so that’s kind of how we got into it,” he adds.

Stinger 6500

Roughly 95 to 98 percent of Stinger customers have a stacking unit, Matlack says. The Stinger 6500, the newest version of the stacker, is the product of customer feedback and engineering. The unit boasts a 305 horsepower engine, mounted in the middle of the machinery to allow for a more even weight distribution than early models. Fully loaded with either rectangular or round bales, the 6500s 1,120-square-inch tire footprint is less than 38 pounds per square inch, which allows for less soil compaction.

One of the Matlack's customers, Jeff Roskam, CEO of Feedstox LLC, began using Stinger equipment in 2012 and currently utilizes the 6500 in his stacking operations. The machinery moves quickly on and off the field, which makes the equipment vital for custom harvesters, he says. “The thing will pick up 100 bales an hour. So, it can generally keep up with two of our square balers. We would match it two balers to one Stinger 6500, or if we run more shifts, we can actually support three balers with it.” Being able to handle roughly 100 bales each hour, he estimates the equipment to cover 30 to 50 acres of wheat straw and corn stover per hour.

The 6500 also showcases new digital technology that assists in bale management operations. The equipment features digital controls that allow the machinery to automatically set up the loads and position the bed for accurate stacking, Roskam says. Additionally, Feedstox’s units implement a global positioning system for better tracking of field passes and efficient bale pickup. “There are very few competitors to that machine, they’re pretty much one of a kind,” he says.

Load-Securing System

A second piece of biomass transportation technology developed by Stinger is the automatic load securing system (ALSS), designed to address time management when securing a load of bales for transportation.

Like the stacker models, the ALSS trailer is the product of observations and customer opinions within the biomass harvesting industry. “The amount of time it required to strap and secure a load of bales was very time-consuming,” Matlack says. “If you’re hauling it 500 miles, it’s no big deal to spend an hour loading and unloading at each end, because you’re going to spend 10 hours on the road. But when you’re going to move a product 15 to 40 miles, all of a sudden you’re spending more time to secure the load than you are moving the load. The costs are nearly identical during those time frames.”

In addition to speed, the ALSS was developed for greater safety in transporting biomass from the field to the biofuel plant. “Every year there are people who are injured and killed by large, rectangular bales falling off of trailers and stacks tipping over,” Matlack explains. “We knew when these large-volume, cellulosic projects started up that this was going to be a genuine concern from a safety and cost standpoint that needed improvement." 

Inspiration for the ALSS came not only from the Midwest, but also from western states, such as California, Oregon and Washington.  Customers in the western states were using mechanical vices to secure twice as many hay bales, and others were loading bales crossways on a trailer. “That made a lot of sense from a safety standpoint,” Matlack says. He adds that method would have required a lot more straps to secure the load and would not be practical for short-distance hauls. The issue became that there was a need for a method to secure a load without requiring the operator to throw, secure or remove a strap that might put him at risk and to increase the speed of the process to reduce costs, he says. “Over the last four or five years we have developed the ALSS system to do exactly that.”

The ALSS system works by laying square bales crossways on the trailer, and after the trailer is loaded, its two mechanical arms extend out and up from each side and rises over the load. Next the arms shorten, tightening the large straps and securing the biomass to the trailer. The entire ALSS securing process takes less than a minute, whereas traditional methods range from 15 to 30 minutes. With a more efficient loading and securing process, it is projected to cost $10.41 per ton to move 600,000 bales twice, from the field to storage and storage to the plant.

Future Projects

To keep biomass bale harvesting efficient, Matlack still relies on listening and examining customer needs and concerns. For instance, the Stinger 8500, which is being designed exclusively for the biomass industry, has been in development the past three years. The 8500 model features technology for better traction in muddy conditions. Generally, farmers would not bale hay during the rain or muddy conditions, Matlack says.  “But in the biomass industry it is an issue, because they combine corn whenever they can, and if the fields are a little muddy, then they’re a little muddy. So if that’s the environment you have, you have to be able to work and perform within that environment.”

Other features to the new 8500 model include the ability to stack and retrieve biomass bales, a new front end to pick up bales in line, improving stacking speed to 180 to 200 bales per hour and less compaction from the front end tires.

“Larry Matlack has made it his business to focus on the biomass industry,” Roskam says. “The point is that they have in-field experience making bales and handling bales. He and the people who are involved actually do the work in the field as operators. They know the fine points on what it takes to make good equipment and a successful biomass harvesting operation."

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine