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Organic hay – is it right for you?

Glenn Shewmaker for Progressive Forage Published on 08 February 2017
organic hay

With the low hay prices of 2016, some producers may be thinking of trying to get into the organic hay market. Organic farming systems rely on practices such as cultural and biological pest management, and virtually prohibit synthetic chemicals in crop production and antibiotics or hormones in livestock production.

My advice is that you really need to do some research and market development before you jump.

The top 10 organic hay production states are California, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Wisconsin, New York, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Iowa. The top three states produce 32 percent of the national tonnage. Although the organic hay market has followed the organic dairy market, it is still only 7 percent of the total forage acreage in the U.S. Transition into organic takes three years, so there is an investment before any premium can be realized.

Organic management

Organic production requires a higher level of management and commitment, not less. Organic pest management requires an integrated approach. The list of organic pesticides is limited and usually expensive. Thus a more sustainable system of control is necessary for effective pest and weed control, and that is more sustainable in the long term for all of agriculture. Cultural and biological control methods used together in a system will be much more effective and probably make the difference of being successful in organic production.

A young producer asked me how to do organic production. I replied that he should think about how his grandpa farmed in the ’50s to ’60s. Although commercial fertilizer was being used, we didn’t use many insecticides or herbicides back in those days. Some tillage and grazing were used to control weeds and insects. I remember my dad telling me that grazing the alfalfa stubble would decrease the alfalfa weevil problems. Also proper timing of tillage, which is usually in the late fall and very early spring, can be effective annual weed control. However, I would caution producers that dragging a spike harrow with a Ford 8N had much less compaction than a JD 8300 all weighted down.

Nutrient management

Nutrient management was more sustainable in the old days when each farm fed a few cows because that was how much of the forage was marketed, through the cows, and the nutrients stayed mostly on the same farm, although not equally on all acres. Conventional as well as organic hay production systems need to have good nutrient management plans. Mylen Bohle conducted organic nutrient source trials for Oregon State University and recommends a good program of soil testing. Then choose a field that is high in phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), if you can, so you don’t need to start adding expensive nutrients initially. Fields that test low can be used for conventional hay production until you build them up. Manure and compost are the most economical nutrient sources for organic and conventional production.

Record keeping

It is important to keep up-to-date and detailed records for organic certification. Program registrants submit to their state department of agriculture an application, appropriate fees and a producer/handler organic plan with maps. An inspector will visit each farm or handling operation during the growing season, and samples may be taken for pesticide residue analysis. Additional unannounced on-site inspections may be conducted.

Weed control

Organic production does not mean you don’t have to control noxious weeds. Producers who think organic production is easy and highly profitable are likely to fail spectacularly. In addition, a producer who allows weeds to go to seed may actually cause more use of herbicides by his neighbors because they will be fighting more weeds. Harvesting weedy crops for haylage before weed seeds are viable is a good option. Grazing when weeds are palatable is recommended for organic hay production to reduce weeds.

Yield and economics

The premium for organic hay may be $10 to $30 per ton. Fortunately, the average yield gap from organic to conventional alfalfa mixed hay is only about 2 percent compared with 20 percent for organic corn silage. The yield gap for grass and cereal hay is about 20 percent, and is probably due to insufficient nitrogen fertilization.

Is organic hay production for you? There has been a steady demand for organic hay following organic dairy production, but the demand has limits. Develop a good market and business plan before you make the investment into organic hay production.  end mark

Glenn Shewmaker is an extension forage specialist with University of Idaho. Email Glenn Shewmaker.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTO: Transition into organic takes three years, so there is an investment before any premium can be realized. Photo by Mike Dixon.