The business side of making hay

by Tamara Scully

If you have ruminant livestock, you’re going to need hay. How much hay your animals will consume and how you go about procuring that hay differs from farm to farm. Vermont farmers Ben Nottermann of Snug Valley Farm and Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm presented at the 2022 Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference, discussing how their grass-based farms manage hay for cattle. Rick Kersbergen of University of Maine Cooperative Extension was also a speaker, discussing factors to consider when opting to make hay – or not.

Kersbergen spelled out the three options for grazers: make and store hay on your farm, using your own equipment, time and labor; hire a custom operator to do some or all of the hay-making steps for you, from cutting to raking to baling to storing; or purchase whatever hay is required.

Knowing how much hay you’ll need to get animals successfully through the non-grazing season is key, Kersbergen said. Either decide how much feed you are willing to buy and cull your herd accordingly, or calculate how much feed is needed to get the existing herd through winter. Depending on the stage of life of your animals, feed requirements will differ. Utilizing high-quality hay for lactating animals and reserving lower quality feed for gestating ones can help keep feed costs down and the herd healthy.

Other factors also come into play, no matter which approach to feeding hay is chosen, Kersbergen advised. If a farmer is making their own hay, then land needs to be available, equipment needs to be procured and time has to be allocated. Equipment comes with maintenance and repair costs as well as operating expenses, and weather or labor factors can interfere with the optimal timing of the hay cutting, sacrificing quality.

Hiring a custom operator may not work when competing with larger operations or too many other farms for their business, or if there are no local operators. But hiring custom operators can also bring advantages. Custom operators tend to have well-maintained equipment and maybe the newest technology, getting the work done quickly and possibly resulting in better quality hay, he said. They can store the feed for you, reducing on-farm infrastructure needs. And having someone else making hay frees you up to focus on other aspects of farm management.

When feeding hay (no matter how you’ve procured it), it’s the dry matter that counts. Having a feed analysis done is imperative. Kersbergen cautioned farmers that water weight can mean low quality feed, which comes with a high price tag when paying by the pound. Paying by weight for wet, moldy baleage or silage isn’t a bargain!

“How many pounds of protein are in that bale?” is the important question, Kersbergen said. A nutritional analysis of a good, representative sample of the feed, prior to purchase, is needed.

Making Hay & Going Custom

“We’re really good at turning out high-quality, well-finished animals,” Nottermann said. “We’ve got to manage that feed quality. We have to have that high-quality feed for finishing year-round.”

Notterman grows and harvests all of his own hay for his Hardwick, VT, farm, where he raises grass-fed and finished beef. They have 270 grazing acres and make hay on 175 acres, some of which are also grazed. He grazed for more than 200 days in 2021, and finishes beef every month. He makes 1,000 round bales per year, and prefers his hay with protein values of 17% – 20% to add weight quickly.

But Nottermann doesn’t quite do all the work in-house. Instead, he hires a custom operator to bale the hay, paying on a per-bale basis. He already had the tractor and could do the mowing, tedding and raking. Hiring someone else to bale the hay reduced his equipment costs, freed his time and eliminated the cost of purchasing, maintaining and operating a baler.

Nottermann learned to assess the value of a bale of hay from the Ranching for Profit School. Instead of counting the actual cost of making a bale of hay, he learned that it’s the replacement value of that bale of hay that really counts.

While the cost of producing hay is important, it’s the cost to replace that hay with an equivalent high-quality hay that accounts for the feed’s value. It’s that full replacement value that needs to be considered when deciding whether to make, hire custom or purchase hay, Nottermann said.

Buying Hay & Gaining Time & Profit

Hennessey made hay for 17 years, and now he doesn’t. He operates a diversified livestock farm, raising grass-fed stocker cattle purchased from other farms and finishing them on grass.

It’s those grazing skills that Maple Wind Farm, in Huntington, VT, values. Hennessey admitted to having no mechanical skills, and used to spend a lot of money on equipment repairs when he did make hay. The equipment costs were keeping the hay from being profitable. It also took too much time away from the primary goal of optimizing grazing.

“We have been able to get much higher returns on our grazing skills” spending time managing grazing rotations and building soil health rather than making hay, he said. “Our decision not to make hay has allowed us to graze much further into the late fall and early winter than we ever did.”

Grazing is the “least expensive bite,” Hennessey said, and his goal is to “finish animals without feeding hay.”

When the animals aren’t ready to finish, but the grazing season – extended with summer annuals, winter forage brassicas and stockpiled forages to be grazed under snow – is over, Hennessey feeds bales on pasture. Those bales are purchased. The farm is too small to be on a custom operator’s radar in their region. He realized he can purchase high-quality hay from custom operators or dairy farmers whose focus is on making that quality hay. He’s looking for a minimum of 10% protein (preferably 15%).

But he’s also learned that low-quality hay, supplemented with super high-quality hay in limited quantities, can drive up intake and capture more value when feeding poor quality hay.

In order to keep transportation costs down, Hennessey purchases his hay locally. The cost varies depending on market conditions. He’s analyzed it and determined that paying for the high-quality hay he needs is still cost-effective, as it involves no labor of his own, significantly reduces equipment costs and “there are people that are just much better at doing it.”

Optimizing Pasture

Nottermann and Hennessey both spread manure from their operations (Hennessey also spreads offal from his poultry processing operation) onto their fields. Nottermann spreads dairy manure from a neighboring farm too, to enhance pasture growth for grazing.

While Hennessey does clip pastures at times, allowing the animals to trample excess forage growth isn’t viewed as wasted forage, but as a means to build pasture fertility. Trampling overgrown pasture builds soil organic matter and soil health. As soil health increases through properly managed rotational grazing and manure management, the nutritional quality of forages is enhanced, and more dry matter becomes available for grazing.

Extending the grazing season at both ends with the use of summer and winter annuals, stockpiling forages and great pasture management will result in less of a need for stored forages. Reducing hay requirements, no matter whether making hay, hiring custom or purchasing it, can keep feed costs down.

“Whether you’re making hay or not, or some kind of a hybrid system … every day that you don’t feed hay is a day that you’re going to increase your profit on that enterprise,” Hennessey said.

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