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Making hay for a living means adapting when the sun doesn’t shine

Growing hay for export to finicky horse owners and demanding dairy producers requires a special level of knowledge and skill — and a little luck, too, especially when the hay is flat on the ground and rain clouds loom.

Dan Jorsvick, who grows forages on 2,000 acres in the foothills of Alberta where the rainfall is “luxurious,” got tired of seeing anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent of his hay downgraded due to excess moisture.

“Profitable hay is simple. The problem is that it’s just not easy,” Jorsvick said during a panel discussion at the recent Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association conference.

For Jorsvick, who has focused on long-fibre timothy hay for the export market in Asia since 1985, hay is the crop that offers the least production risk for his area.

But hay value is in the “eye of the beholder,” he said.

Ranchers focus on cost, dairymen look at nutrition, while equine buyers judge forage by its “look.” For the Asian market, fibre content and cleanliness is paramount.

Cleanliness paramount

Jorsvick invested in a Veda hay dryer six years ago, which reduces the time between cut and harvest, and minimizes the risk of downgrades. The gas-fired, forced-air dryer can reduce the moisture content of 24 medium squares from around 20 per cent to 11 per cent in five to six hours. Similar drying methods are used in the Parmesan cheese-growing region of Italy, where mycotoxins and moulds in hay (which spoil the flavour of milk) became a huge issue in the postwar period.

“For a number of years, the industry basically collapsed,” said Jorsvick.

The problem was solved, however, by engineers who developed hay-drying systems.

Jorsvick hired an Italian company to custom build a forced-air system with built-in timers, temperature and humidity regulators, and moisture probes. At a cost of $8 to $15 per tonne, he is able, in most cases, to avoid “culling” bales.

It’s not a quick fix for quality problems, but the benefits, which include a larger target window for harvesting, outweigh the costs because “quality sells,” he said.

No quick fix

Sam Luckhardt, a hay exporter and beef producer from Owen Sound, Ont., near Georgian Bay, has another solution to quality issues.

Luckhardt, who cuts about 600 acres of forage each year in rotation with other crops to build soil tilth, also suffers from moisture problems.

But buffered acid preservative and his beef herd help him deal with the risk of downgraded alfalfa and timothy production not suitable for export, he said.

Three-quarters of his export market is for horse hay that needs to be “John Deere green” with no mould or dust and that feels “soft” with no hard, coarse stems. Otherwise, horses will reject it — and the buyers won’t pay.

“The hay can’t come back,” said Luckhardt. “It’ll stay down there. You just won’t get paid for it. There’s no use sending poor-quality hay.”

Kevin Gilbert, who farms in Stratford, Ont., where it’s hard to get five straight days without rain, recently started a forage operation in Saskatchewan. He echoed Luckhardt’s sentiments about counterparty risk in exporting hay.

Share risk

He asks new buyers to share risk, with a 50 per cent payment up front.

“The biggest hurdle is finding good, honest customers to deal with,” said Gilbert. “If you don’t get paid for the hay, nothing else matters.”

Darren Chapman, who along with his extended family farms 16,000 acres of beef and grain with 2,000 acres of forage near Virden, Manitoba, has shipped hay south to Florida and Texas for a number of years.

The family bales mainly orchard grass and alfalfa in medium squares with small squares for the premium U.S. horse hay market. Hay is taken off the fields as soon as possible and stacked in huge hay sheds on crushed rock and old hay tarps in the yard to facilitate aeration. Lesser-quality hay is rolled up into round bales for their own herd.

Lately, they have been shipping small squares into 45,000-pound loads in trucking vans and containers, making a “tight fit.”

“I’m just glad that I’m not the one on the other end trying to take them out,” he joked.

Competing with the oil boom in southwestern Manitoba for manpower is an issue, as is “prioritizing” work during the production season. Strong demand in the drought-stricken southern U.S. this past year has affected the availability of trucking.

“But we’ve been getting a lot of repeat business with the trucks that we’ve been using over the past few years and it has been working out well for us,” said Chapman.

To maintain production, they fertilize after every second cut with a high-potash blend at a rate of 350 pounds per acre.

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