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0408 FG: That process works pretty well

Loretta Sorensen Published on 15 August 2008

Pierce, Nebraska alfalfa producer, Bernie Wrede, has been cultivating western alfalfa and serving as a supplier for dairy farms in the eastern and southern United States for 18 years.

His attention to the individual needs of his customers and the consistent quality of his hay has taken him to numerous states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas.

Wrede began his alfalfa business with 400 acres of his 1,600-acre farm. He was surprised at how much he learned about the business in that first season.

“It was a big learning experience,” he says. “And you don’t learn it all in one year. There’s a big difference between the big round bales and the 1,500-pound square bales you put up for dairies.

Round bales shed water as soon as they’re baled. Square bales can absorb water like a sponge.”

It’s no secret that getting the alfalfa cut, baled and under cover before it gets rained on is key to maintaining quality. If the hay is rained on at any point in the process, the quality quickly deteriorates.

“The more leaves you get into those bales, the better,” Wrede says. “Rain washes away nutrients and leaves and makes the hay less digestible. There’s less feed value in it.

The cows eat it, but they don’t give as much milk. If you put several piles of hay in front of a dairy cow, they’ll pick out the best one. They know the difference.”

Among the challenges dairy farmers face is finding a supplier who provides them with bales that don’t conceal problems such as mold, sand burs, weeds or inaccurate quality tests.

“Dairy producers don’t want to pay any more than they have to for their forage,” Wrede says. “They also don’t want to pay for a load of hay that isn’t what they need it to be when it arrives.

If they send me $5,000 for a load of hay, they want to know that they’re going to get a quality product. A good hay grower or broker stands behind his product.”

Wrede says many producers of alfalfa can tell as much by smelling, touching and looking at the hay as by testing it.

“The rule of thumb is, over 20 percent on protein, under 30 percent on acid detergent fiber (ADF) and under 40 on neutral detergent fiber (NDF),” he says. “If your alfalfa is in that area, the relative feed value (RFV) and relative forage quality (RFQ) is going to be satisfactory.”

Hay that’s been wet will always produce a musty smell.
“When some producers test hay, they take samples in the best spots, working around weeds or other problems,” Wrede says. “All producers should sample their bales. On a square bale, go to the end of the bale and probe to the center. That will give you the most true test of the hay’s quality.”

Wrede talks to nutritionists on a regular basis to stay abreast of changes in the alfalfa and dairy industries. He has utilized orchardgrass to extend the life of his alfalfa fields and make the most of his resources each year.

“A normal alfalfa stand thins out after the seeding year and three additional years,” he says. “To extend the life of those fields, I sow the orchardgrass so that I’m harvesting an ample amount of forage when I cut the hay.

Alfalfa provides nitrogen the orchardgrass needs, and the orchardgrass improves the palatability of the alfalfa, so they complement each other. I have dairies who want the alfalfa and orchardgrass bales, so that process works pretty well for me.”

In the years since he began selling alfalfa, Wrede has seen hay that was sprayed with green food coloring and had molasses and oats mixed in to improve the smell and appearance of the bales.

“Those suppliers usually sold to the urban market, and the hay was fed to horses or small herds of animals,” he says. “Dairy producers wouldn’t be able to use that kind of product. They can’t afford to have their cows go off feed and not be producing milk.”

Customers come and go for different reasons, but Wrede’s always had a good customer base. Part of his strategy for developing a successful market has been to personally deliver the hay he sells.

“I don’t make as many deliveries as I did at first,” Wrede says. “Initially, I thought it was very important for the dairy producers to meet the person who was supplying their hay. It isn’t easy to find a reliable supplier, and I wanted them to know that I was interested in their individual needs, like how much moisture content, maturity, alfalfa or alfalfa-orchardgrass mix they wanted.”

“I now have a great driver who is just as conscientious as I am. He makes sure customers are happy with the product. If there are any problems, he makes sure they’re corrected. I also have dedicated field help that work long hours to get a good product to sell.”

Wrede does have some concerns about the future of the U.S. agriculture economy. He says he will have to increase the price of his hay in order to maintain his operation over the next year. He isn’t sure what the market will bear or how dairies will absorb all the rising costs they’re facing.

“Now that the cost of so many things is increasing again, you have to wonder how we’re all going to make it work,” he says.  FG