Small Hay Operations Have Big Needs
With the cost of hay near record highs, more small-acreage farmers are cutting and baling themselves. Two farmers explain how they not only save money, but also how they produce a better-quality product.
By Sabra Morris | Photos By L.G. Patterson
Most days, from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., you can find Galen Hammann working what might be called his first shift. He’s an assistant engineer at the Truman Hotel in his hometown of Jefferson City, Mo. “We cut the grass, paint, work on anything and everything—electrical, plumbing, stoves, refrigerators, we do it all,” he says.
By mid-afternoon, he’s working closer to home on his 185-acre farm, where he raises about 80 head of cattle a year, as well as oats, wheat and hay—a mixture of fescue, orchardgrass, brome and clover—to use as feed for his cow/calf operation. Hammann, who, among his many other duties, is also the assistant chief of the local volunteer fire department, estimates he sells 25 to 30 head of cattle per year at weaning age. No matter what he’s up to, the work usually doesn’t stop until dark, if not later.
That’s much the same story for Ken Thalman. Living and working about a three-hour drive east from Hammann, Thalman is a full-time postal employee in Centralia, Ill., who, in addition to his day job, grows grass hay on 18 acres of his 40-acre spread. “Normally, I start work [for the post office] around 6:30 a.m., and I can be done by 3 to 3:30,” he says. “At that time, I head back to our place. Around the ranch, there are just numerous things that have to be done on a daily basis.”
Falling Hay Production, Rising Prices
Thalman and Hammann are among the growing ranks of the do-it-yourself hay producers. One of the main drivers of the trend is that less hay is being produced, leading to higher prices.
Also, significant advances in equipment have made it more cost-effective for many farmers to grow their own as opposed to buying feed or hiring custom harvesters. Even growing hay on plots of land once considered too small to be worth the effort has become an increasingly popular solution for producers looking to squeeze the value out of every dollar, hour and acre.
“Hay acreage has been falling in the U.S. due to big demand surges for corn and soybeans,” says Christopher Hurt, professor at the Purdue University department of agricultural economics. From 2005 to 2013, planted corn acres in the U.S. have increased by 13.6 million acres and soybeans by 4.5 million acres, according to the USDA. Conversely, the number of acres planted in hay has decreased by 5.1 million. Drought, too, led to lower production. “The national hay yield in 2012, for example, was the lowest since 1998.”
Predictably, fewer hay acres lead to higher prices. “The 2005 U.S. hay crop price averaged $98 per ton, and the price for the 2012 crop was nearly double that, at $191 per ton,” says Hurt, citing USDA statistics.
The same is true for parts of Canada. “The summer of 2012 brought a historic drought to Southeast Canada—Ontario specifically,” says Richard Horne, policy adviser for the Beef Farmers of Ontario. During that time, hay prices jumped to two to three times the normal rate, according to the Ontario Forage Council.
And while hay prices have begun to drop again in both countries, Hurt predicts a slow recovery in the U.S. hay market, causing U.S. hay acreage to stay small. “Once a farm moves out of hay,” he says, “it’s a major decision to return to hay. The transition will show up in the next two years and then take another three to five years to build up.”