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Changing over

Darren Olsen, Editor Published on 31 December 2009

 ‘What to grow?’ has been a questions producers have faced for thousands of years.

For each one, the answer hinges on a mixture of variables that must be heavily considered each growing season.

For Nebraska producer Chris Ray, the decision to shift from wheat and other row crops to alfalfa hay nearly two decades ago has opened opportunities he never thought were possible in a row-crop production system.

There are, as Chris pointed out, a lot of decisions that have to be made before someone just jumps into the forage market. Even with a strong desire to make things work, he pointed out there are several areas to consider before starting the adventure.

“If someone is considering going into forage production that hasn’t been previously, they really need to look at their commitment to the entire process.

They need to look at the equipment it will take to put up hay in a timely manner. They also need to look at the number of people it will take to get the hay put up at the right time and in the right way to be successful.

It isn’t easy, especially in the beginning stages of a new forage operation, but I have found it to be more rewarding than row cropping was.

“Your biggest challenge is trying to decide if you are going to go after the grinding/commodity market or if you are going to push for the highest- quality horse/dairy market with your crops. If you do make the decision to go after the high-end markets, you are going to have to implement some practices that will affect the quality from planting to storing the final products before it is shipped out.

“A person really needs to make these kinds of decisions before they get started as the size of balers, storage facilities and even hay types you seed can all be affected by the market you decide to pursue.

My initial inclination was to go after the feeder/grinding market, but when I got into the equipment costs and overall cash flow model, we changed course and decided to shoot for higher quality.”

Chris will be the first one to point out even when the initial decisions have been made and commitments centered on the kind of operation a person is going to run, it takes a team of dedicated employees to bring those business decisions to reality.

“One important part of our operation is that our employees really like working in the hay business. With all the demands that come with putting up quality hay, it is even more difficult if the people who work for you don’t find satisfaction in what they are doing.

It can be hard to find people who don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night to bale or move hay before a storm hits. We do try to compensate them for the unusual working conditions and hours and have found, over the years, that it is better to take care of your employees who are doing a good job for you than try to replace them with cheaper help.

It is more than worth it to me to try and do special things for them if they understand the importance of putting hay up the right way.

“One of the biggest challenges to hay production in our area is baling the hay without disturbing the leaves too much. Our area of the state is fairly arid, so timing the drydown time and making sure there is enough dew to hold the leaves while passing through the baler tends to keep us up at night.

We have found that if we rake from 2 to 6 in the morning and then bale until about mid-day, we are able to put together the quality bales we are looking for with the least amount of leaf shattering. It has taken some trial and error to get it right, but for our operation, this tends to produce the best results overall.”

As with any production system and product, Chris has discovered that it takes a great relationship with his clients to turn his hard work into a profitable venture for both himself and his employees.

Over the years, experience with a variety of buyers and producers has allowed him to establish a working relationship with dairymen across the Midwest. It has taken time, but trust and hard work have given him a group of buyers that come back year after year.

“One of the key parts to being successful in the hay industry is finding a customer base that understands your methods for putting up hay and accepts those practices as part of your negotiations for price.

If you can find people who understand the care and timeliness needed for putting up quality hay, they are typically the best ones to have long term.

So many times people are wanting quality hay but aren’t willing to take the time to understand what it takes to make that kind of hay. You might have to do some educating if you want to keep people interested in your products and know they are getting the best you can produce.

“There comes a point where you have to trust each other and know you are both working towards a final product that will perform well with their animals. If you can create that kind of working environment with your clients, you have gone a long way to have them for a long time to come.

“While I used to be able to do most sales on a handshake, I would tell most people to create a contract with any new buyer they are dealing with. It used to not be that way, but with the milk markets and other variables creating cash flow issues for some of your potential buyers, a contract has become a necessary part of business.”

Even with the recent downturn to the dairy market, Chris explains how his relationships with his current clients helped both sides of the relationship weather the highs and lows of the last two years.

“One thing we have tried to do with our long-term clients is try and come to an agreement as to a fair price that works for both parties. When hay prices rose quickly last year, we tried to maintain a middle-ground price for the individuals we had been servicing for several years.

At the same time, as prices have fallen off, we have been able to maintain selling hay at a price that will allow us to stay in business. It has taken years to develop these kinds of relationships, but both the buyer and myself are looking out for each other and those are the kinds of people you want to have as customers.”

Over the years, Chris has taken a change from row-crops to forage and made a life and business he and his employees are proud to call a livelihood. Hard work and lasting relationships have been a bedrock of stability for his company and Chris notes that no matter what they continue to deal with, they will be ready for whatever challenges are coming in the future.

“I have learned that every year will come with a different set of opportunities and challenges. No year is the same and typically, no cutting is the same either. From weather to insects or market conditions, you never know what is coming. The best thing you can do is continue to produce the best possible product for your customers and know that if you keep doing your best, you will have people who want your hay.”  FG