Tips for Growing and Selling Horse Hay
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Tips for Growing and Selling Horse Hay

August 15, 2019

Hi my name is Krishona Martinson, and
I’m the Equine Extension Specialist at the University of Minnesota. Over the
past several years, we’ve received numerous requests from individuals asking for
tips on how to grow and sell horse hay. We felt these tips were best shared by
individuals who produce horse hay. Therefore, we’ve interviewed five
Minnesota horse hay suppliers and asked them a series of questions.
Although these farmers have a relationship with our team through
Extension and research projects, they are not endorsed by the University of
Minnesota. Monitoring moisture on the baling
process is achieved generally through the old method of feeling the windrows,
things like that initially. And then as we’re baling, in the small
square baler we have a moisture tester in the chamber that gives us a reading
every three seconds. So we get about two different readings on each bale coming
out of the baler. Well that’s changed a lot probably in the last bunch of years.
As a kid it was the old rope test and see if it was brittle and go from there.
Now days, I’ve got hand probes in both balers; the round baler and the
small square baler have moisture sensors on them so I get a reading about every
three to five seconds. So you know instantly when it’s getting too wet
or too tough, when it’s time to stop, or when it’s time to go. So that’s the
biggest factors, the technology of the moisture sensors in the balers have
made it a lot easier. That’s kind of like the lottery ticket
on how to do hay. The weather pretty much trumps everything. I mean if you get a
wet spell for a week or two, you just you can’t make progress. Sometimes that does
affect maturity, but if the hay gets two inches of rain on it, it’s not going
to be good for anything other than bedding or cover. And we watch the weather like everybody, but we’re less concerned around the
timing of cutting in the maturity and we always err on the early cutting side. So
if we have a good weather window, even if it from a yield perspective it would
make more sense to wait a week, if we have good weather coming we’ll cut. And I
found that it’s better to make hay when you have a good consistent weather
window than it is to try to maximize every piece of yield by waiting longer
and getting into a shorter production window. Since most of my hay is for
horses, it’s an alfalfa grass mix and I’m
looking for tonnage. So I tend to cut on a maybe a 35-day schedule versus a dairy
farmer would be cutting probably on a 28- day schedule. I’m going for a little more
tonnage and I only push most of my crops three times a year versus four crops
where we’re located. And if the rain is coming, I’ll hold off and wait a few more
days. I’m not going to cut the hay and have it get rained on. I don’t have
options for chopping or getting rid of it that way. So I try to find the right
window and make a good quality hay even if it is a little more mature, but
green is as a key factor to horse customers more than feed value, I
seem to see. Species selection, I think every grower
has their preference based on their market. We try to grow a mix of alfalfa
and orchard grass. Everything that we plant, we plant alfalfa and orchard. A lot
of horse customers prefer timothy. Also rye grass is a good horse hay and you’ll
find that in a lot of mixes. The reason we have selected alfalfa and orchard
grass is because it’s a good complement. The grasses mature and keep up with the
growth of alfalfa on regrowth on your follow-on cuttings. If you plant timothy,
you’ll have an excellent first crop yield, high volume, but then your second
and third cuttings dwindle away. And so your ratio of alfalfa to timothy or alfalfa to the grass would change pretty significantly. Most of that is
customer-driven, you know what people are asking for. And sometimes
that’s a moving target. We have… you know some years it seems like people want
higher alfalfa. Some years they want more grass. I have been fortunate
enough to take over fields that have mostly timothy, orchard, and brome. There’s
a tiny bit of Kentucky bluegrass in some of the fields. The species we grow are
alfalfa, orchard grass, and timothy. And that’s primarily dictated by what people
like to see in the bales. Orchard grass is a higher yielding grass, so we tried
to use that as much as we can. Timothy is asked for so we make sure we
have that in the mix, and I’m on pretty sandy soils so the alfalfa is needed to
really achieve the tonnage. Hay is a long, expensive process. I am very
fortunate, all of my equipment is probably from the 1950s. I have my old
Allis-Chalmers with my Minnesota, I think it’s a ’56, rake. I have a few 1950s Farmall M’s. You have to be able to learn and know how to fix your own equipment because if
you break down, I’ve got probably 500 bales cut, and if my baler breaks down
tomorrow I need to know how to fix it. It’s a lot of time. It’s not just as easy
as going out cutting, waiting a day, going out the next day raking, and
baling. I think that’s a really hard question. It
depends on the size of operation that you have. You know you can buy
a decent hay baler for a couple thousand dollars. You’d have some tractor
for a couple thousand dollars. Hay wagons are generally a thousand to two thousand
dollars. A hay rake is a couple thousand dollars. So I would say, for fairly modest
equipment, ten to fifteen thousand to get into something. Of course you know our
hay production is significantly different than that. You know, we have
100+ thousands of dollars of equipment that we refresh to run the
acres that we do. It’s hard to judge, but I would say most growers unless they’re
doing a very large scale and have been doing it in an efficient system for a
long time, most people are much better off buying their hay than they are
trying to produce their own even if it’s at a very very high cost or probably
still money ahead to buy. Don’t,
but I’ll clarify that answer. If you are needing to grow a lot of hay, then you
can justify it, but if you’re one or two or three or four horses and you’ve got a
five acre patch I don’t believe that you can buy the equipment. Even if it’s old
fairly decent equipment, but the maintenance and the hassle of it;
just buy your hay from a hay producer. I would say you know talk to some people
that have done it and decide if it’s really worth it.
A lot of people that I know and friends of ours you know they’ve had small
acreage and tried to or wanted to get a baler do their own hay so that they
could control everything. And usually within a year or two they kind
of figured out that there’s a lot of cost going into a bale of hay. Like I
said before, it’s not as simple as just buying the equipment and going out and
cutting, raking, and baling. Talk to people that do it. Do your research. Take the dollars you’re looking to invest in doing that and maybe add
storage to buy more hay at a time when it’s reasonable and the quality is what
you like and carry it over from one year to the next into the future. The
challenges of growing your own, you can get a lot of money invested in equipment
and things. And then if the weather doesn’t cooperate with you, you wind up
with a bunch of hay that you don’t like and are trying to deal with getting rid
of. Probably the best thing to do is just
talk to people. Find out what they’re looking for, what might work
for them. For myself, the reputation is way more important than any one
particular business deal. We try to do anything I can to keep people generally
happy. It will pretty well take over your life. If you try to have a weekend off or
a day off, doesn’t matter how, but hay finds a way
to interrupt that so it is a much bigger time commitment than what I think people
realize when they first start getting into it. If you’re not a patient or
tolerant person or don’t have excellent customer service skills, the horse hay
market is probably one that you don’t want to be in. The market is so hard to
define. Each customer has such a unique requirement and purpose and I can show a
bale of hay to somebody and they think it’s premium quality hay and another
person will think it’s terrible. The weather is of course
probably the thing that trumps everything. If you have a
good stretch of weather to go and can make real nice hay, it’s
real easy, everything goes well. And sometimes the weather changes after you
cut and you just have to kind of deal with it. Trying to sell your hay at a
certain price, whether it’s six dollars a bale because then your neighbor will
sell it for five. And if you sell it for five they’ll sell it for four. And if you sell it at four then they sell it at three. Someone’s always
trying to undercut you and that’s where a relationship with with a grower
and a customer are huge. My greatest challenge is mother nature
and trying to work full-time because growing hay for me is kind of just my
way of supporting my habit by feeding my horses. It’s not a moneymaker for me; I’m
lucky to break even at the end of the year.

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  1. Nice job on the video. I'd add a few comments for people looking to get into the market. First, build a clientele of horse and non-horse customers. By that I mean folks with sheep, cattle, goats or even landscapers looking for erosion control. Then if the crop doesn't meet horses standards you'll have other potential customers. Second, build relationships with people, by looking to have the livestock owner be successful so you can be too. If market prices go through the roof one year, think carefully about how much you raise prices for long-term customers. You don't want them out of business when the market goes soft again. Third, consider saving some bales for late winter auctions. Like in April 2018 the auctions were a great market.

  2. Great video. This is a very important video for new people getting into haying. We did it for 25 years with only 35 acres of hay. I spent more on equipment than I ever brought in. Our goal was to feed our animals, and I engaged the neighbors for help. This is when they were long on horses and short on cash. I also stored the hay. I the last 5 years I lost my help found it easier to to buy than to make, so I converted to round bales.

    Thanks for doing this video.

  3. My uncle used to make very good hay with meadow fescue and timothy, also a good amount of clover.  Although it was used to feed cows, there was very little dust in it, which would be good for horses.   He also made a small amount of loose  hay one year, which would have been ideal, as it had not been cut by a baler.

  4. I'm retired and have a small farm in SW Pennsylvania. Several years ago we sold all the livestock and now sale hay for both horses and cattle. On a good year I'll make enough to pay the taxes and fuel for the year. But there's no place I'd rather be then out in a hay field.

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