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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

Where growing and harvesting hay might once have been a losing proposition for small farmers like Hammann, it’s now becoming an economical way for them to procure quality feed.

Where growing and harvesting hay might once have been a losing proposition for small farmers like Hammann, it’s now becoming an economical way for them to procure quality feed.

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 checks over a 600-pound round bale made with his Hesston 1734 baler.

Thalman checks over a 600-pound round bale made with his Hesston 1734 baler.

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.”

DIR=DIY

In addition to scarcity—and its offspring, price—many producers bale their own for reasons of quality. In other words, doing it right means doing it yourself. “The biggest advantage,” Thalman says, “is that I can produce [hay] when it’s ready to be cut—whenever it’s in its prime.”

Hammann walks with his son, Jason, who kicks in some much-needed help at harvest time.

Hammann walks with his son, Jason, who kicks in some much-needed help at harvest time.

Hammann agrees. In order to maximize quality, he tries to cut, bale and store the hay within a two-day window, with an average of one to two cuts each year. By doing it himself, he can do the work as soon as he needs to. That kind of flexibility ensures his feed is harvested when it’s at the optimal nutrition level.

Then, there’s just the simple dollars-and-sense financial benefit. “It’s cheaper,” he says, comparing growing his own to buying it. That’s especially important to Hammann during years when the cost of hay has been at its highest.

“In 2012, hay was so expensive you couldn’t even find it,” he says. “But I was in good shape because I had one barn with 200 bales [harvested the previous year] I hadn’t used yet. It was so dry that year, I ended up using that 200 bales and I didn’t have to buy any hay.”

Hay Is A Sound Investment

The threshold for getting into DIY haying is typically lower economically for farmers like Hammann, who can spread the cost over a great number of tasks, such as a cattle operation and raising a variety of crops. However, the rising cost of hay and the demand on custom harvesters have made the DIY option more cost-effective for greater numbers of small-acreage farmers as well.

That’s the case for Thalman, who owns six horses that he keeps for recreation and training. He inherited 40 acres about five years ago and began housing his horses there. Originally he thought he’d just let them graze openly. “But I actually had one horse founder from overeating, so I decided I’d have to do something besides keep them on pasture. Instead of just mowing off that excess pasture and buying hay, I thought I may as well just go ahead and process my own.”

When Thalman invested in harvesting equipment and began growing his own hay in 2012, he saw a reduction in his production costs right away. Though the drought led to just one cutting that first year, things have improved. “On a normal year, I can produce twice the hay I need,” he says.

Fit the Hay Equipment to the Job

Both Hammann and Thalman battle hills and sharp corners that make operating with large mowers and balers difficult. That’s a big reason why they use small, nimble equipment that’s more suited for rolling land often carved into small parcels.

Thalman’s daughter, Nicole Kirby, performs a training move with Mingo, one of six horses that lives on the family property.

Thalman’s daughter, Nicole Kirby, performs a training move with Mingo, one of six horses that lives on the family property.

“The smaller length of the cutterbar on Ken’s Massey Ferguson® 1326 disc mower allows it to cover rough terrain,” says dealer Jeff Suchomski, of Suchomski Equipment. “And Ken’s Hesston® 1734 [round] baler, with the smaller overall size, can handle the terrain better too.”

Thalman can also pull his new equipment with relatively low-horsepower tractors. Considering many small-acreage farmers aren’t likely to own anything much larger, that’s a valuable feature. “A lot of people don’t realize anything is available that they can pull with a tractor that small,” says Suchomski.

“I don’t need a big tractor to do farming with,” says Thalman. “I’ve got my own tractor, and Jeff can match me up with equipment that will work with what I’ve got. It’s a win-win situation.”

Both Thalman and Hammann also have to travel over the road with their equipment to reach smaller patches of land they clear for neighbors. When he needs to be mobile, Hammann runs a Hesston 4550 square baler he purchased from Tom Lauf, of Lauf Equipment. “The square baler is built very compact compared to how it used to be built. It’s narrower and still makes a better bale than the old balers did,” Lauf says.

Extending behind the tractor, not out to the side, it’s easier to transport too. “That makes it much safer to drive down the road,” says Lauf. Also, “When Galen gets to the field, he doesn’t have to swing the baler around. It’s much easier for him to get around obstacles that way.”

Thalman also likes the way his equipment handles in tight spots. “When I show you some of the places that I take hay off of, you’d think there’s no way you could get your equipment in,” he says. “I’ve got places up and down the road here with 4, 5 and 6 acres that I mow. And my equipment is small enough, I can just run right down the road.”

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