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Going where no round baler has gone before

Alisa Anderson Published on 07 August 2009

Jim Howard of Nebraska is a full-time life insurance salesman and a minister for a small local church. But on the side he puts up prairie hay. “I look to cut hay in places where most people wouldn’t put it up. If I can drive my tractor there, I can put up hay there,” Howard says.

Howard cuts about 250 acres of hay each year that grows wild on steep Nebraskan hillsides and in canyons where other growers won’t go. He cuts brome, wheat grass, bluestem and some combinations thereof.

On the steepest hillsides, where he says the best prairie hay grows, a round baler will tip over or make lopsided bales. Howard uses a mower, a small square baler, a side-delivery rake and a 56-horsepower Ford New Holland tractor instead of cutting with a swather and baling with a round baler.

Howard rents the hay patches where he cuts hay. Sometimes he splits picking up the bales with the owners. But more often he either gives the owners one-third of the hay or pays them $1 to $1.20 per bale.

He puts up about 3,000 small bales per year, which he sells for $4 per bale. After fuel and maintenance costs, he makes $3,000 to $4,000 per year.

Howard usually gets one to two cuttings per season. He will go out in the morning after the dew has dried and mow for only an hour-and-a-half.

The wheat grass and the bluestem will be dry by 3 or 4 p.m., and the brome will be dry by the next day. Cutting too much hay at a time puts the hay in danger of getting rained on, so Howard says it is important to only cut as much hay as you can put up in one day.

A couple of years ago Howard used to mow for about five or six hours a day. One day he got three inches of rain before he could put up all his bales, and he lost 500 of them. “It really made me sick,” he says.

Howard says that one perk of using a mower is that it cuts the hay in a way that allows it to dry more evenly if it does get wet by an unexpected shower.

“My wife says I drive her crazy worrying about the weather. You have to time it so carefully with the weather. If it looks like a rainy day, just don’t mow any hay,” Howard says.

Howard uses two New Holland bale wagons to haul the hay to his shed where he arranges the hay by variety. “It’s kind of like a little hay store. I feel that it comes across as a little more professional that way,” says Howard.

Howard puts up signs at local feed stores and runs ads on the local radio station to advertise his hay. There are few local farmers who put up prairie hay, and those who do often don’t sell it.

This leaves the market wide open for Howard. “If you’re a type of person who is willing to do something that no one else is willing to do, you will sell every bit of it. I’m out of hay now, and I’ve still got people calling,” Howard says.

In his area there are a lot of “horse lovers” and equine competitors, and he says they are his main customers. Some horse owners won’t feed their horses anything but prairie hay.

Most of them are women or 4-H’ers who like the small bales and are willing to pay as much for a 50-pound bale as they would for a 75-pound bale. Brome is the most popular type of prairie hay.

When Howard was a boy he would work all day putting up hay with his father. He tells of his first full day of work when he was 7 years old.

His father had it mowed and raked, and was stacking it into loose piles. Howard helped his father pick up the loose hay that lay around the piles. They then stacked it loose in their hay loft. “I remember when I came home that night I fell asleep at suppertime. But it was fun,” says Howard.

As a young man in the 70s and 80s, Howard cut the hay canyon that he inherited from his father. He was able to buy a cheap baler from a neighbor and just decided that he was going to try it. He eventually had to sell the land. Yet later on in life he wanted to get back into it, and he’s continued to do it for four years now.

“It’s very satisfying to me. Some people put up big acreages of hay, and I don’t think that they take time to appreciate just what hay really is and what the hay process is. I’ve learned to love the land and being out there in nature and seeing the beauties of the hillsides and the canyons on a nice summer day. Cutting prairie hay is a good fit for me,” Howard says.  FG

Alisa Anderson
Staff writer