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Eastern Colorado hay processor bales high-quality alfalfa for retail market

Monica Gokey for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2019
Truckload of hay ready to ship

At face value, Tim Hall of Hall’s Hay in Idalia, Colorado, is a cross between a hay broker and a hay processor. He buys high-quality alfalfa hay from growers in Colorado and Wyoming and packages it into small bales for the retail hay market in the Southeast.

What makes Hall unique is an insatiable appetite for thinking outside the proverbial box. He’s caught himself wondering if people would shell out for “reindeer hay” at Christmas. Or whether a hay-centric YouTube channel would ever take off. (It did. The jury’s still out on the reindeer hay, though.)

These things sound eccentric. True. But they’re the modern iteration of a bent on innovation that’s been a mainstay at Hall’s Hay for three generations.

Finding a niche: Small-bale alfalfa

Hall was about 12 when he started running a baler alongside his father and grandfather. Back then, their family’s entire business was related to production, either custom harvesting or sharecropping. “We never owned land,” he says.

But they’ve always been into marketing their own hay. Hall says his family would often try to buy the owner’s share of hay and sell it where they could. In addition to being on harvest crew, Tim would deliver horse hay to farms on Colorado’s Front Range.

In the early 2000s, business shifted away from field production of small bales and into processing. “We played around with the idea of building a small-bale bundling system. Our original idea was to bundle our standard little bales into a pack of 18 with plastic straps so we could handle them like big bales,” Hall recalls.

He went out to the West Coast to see how people were running big strappers in the export industry. “We ordered these two high-tech strapping machines and put them on our system,” Hall says. “It worked great.”

The Halls started selling off their small-bale equipment and acquired a slicing system in the process. Now they work almost exclusively with big bales. This is where Hall’s business has been ever since: He buys high-quality large bales, slices them into three layers (like a fancy cake), compresses those layers, straps them and then chops them into 50-pound bales. Those small bales are bundled into 18-bale packages of retail-ready hay destined for markets in states like Florida and Georgia.

The biggest challenge of this business is seeing everything that’s in the hay he’s buying and processing, from goose decoys to dirt to dandelions. It’s impossible to know what’s in a big bale of hay until you process it, Hall says. That’s turned him into what some might delicately call a hay snob.

“I’ve turned into my own worst nightmare from years ago,” Hall laughs. Dissecting hay alongside growers isn’t always fun. Producers can get standoffish. But many want to know what Hall knows. If he can help someone grow better hay, everyone wins, Hall says.

“I thought it would be easy to find ton after ton of perfect hay to send through. It’s actually the hardest thing we do,” he adds. “We sort a lot of hay because of that.”

His process seems to be working though, because Hall says he hasn’t had a load of hay rejected in years.

“Our biggest market is premium alfalfa,” Hall explains, adding that he also dabbles in some grass mixes, too. How he judges hay quality is often visual – he says he’s mostly looking for color and leaf.

“One of the biggest challenges is taking care of hay. A lot of the people we work with don’t have the barns we do. We end up buying a lot of tarps for people,” Hall says. For him, the added expense of tarps is a no-brainer against the risk that he might not be able to sell hay which has been damaged by exposure.

Small and savvy wins the race

Tim Hall’s reputation is as good as the hay he sells, and he’d like to keep it that way.

“Everybody I sell hay to is a close personal friend. I’ve had dinner with almost every one of them,” Hall says. Many are colleagues he’s met through the National Hay Association.

“Every load of hay that goes out of here is sent on credit, and I don’t lose sleep over who’s going to pay,” he adds, seemingly unaware he’s just described a worst nightmare for many small-business owners.

Hall has had opportunities for growth over the years, but staying small has worked for him. Part of it is due to supply. He currently ships between 150 and 200 44,000-pound loads of hay per year, depending on what he can buy. “I’d rather say, ‘No, I don’t have hay,’ than send something mediocre,” he says.

“Every year, I turn down new customers because I don’t have the kind of volume or setup to handle more,” Hall explains. If he did expand, Hall says the first hurdle would be sourcing more high-quality hay.

If you can’t buy it, make it

For three generations, innovation has been a staple of Hall’s Hay. In his father’s and grandfather’s heyday, it was equipment – equipment they needed but couldn’t purchase, either because it was too expensive or it didn’t exist.

The Hall family’s first invention was in the ’60s – it was a self-propelled two-tie bale stacker. After that, it was custom-made bale grabs. Then a bale stacker. Then a self-unloading hay trailer.

“It had two great big chains and a gear reduction motor,” he remembers. “We’d basically lay a load chain down on the trailer floor, then we’d hand-stack the bales up on the trailer. When we got to where we were going, we’d hook ramps to the back of the trailer first, then start up the chains, and the whole load would start moving on the trailer. When the load hit the ground, it would start pushing the truck out from underneath it.”

For a number of years, the Halls sold their inventions at farm shows or straight out of their machine shop. Tim still periodically hears from people around the country with photos or stories of equipment with his family’s name on it.

The modern iteration of the Hall family’s inventiveness has switched from welding and tooling to wires and software. Hall came back home from college with a degree in industrial science, and his education in AutoCAD design and programming has been invaluable in tweaking their equipment setup. (It’s also been a point of stress, too, like the time his mom caught him unraveling wires from the control panel of a $200,000 machine they’d borrowed on.)

The family’s DIY mentality toward equipment is already showing up in the next generation, too. Hall’s two sons are just starting to take an interest in the family business.

“They’ve been raised on iPads and computer games, and I’m finally starting to show them there’s cool stuff in ag, too. Making a machine and being able to make it do exactly what you want is a pretty cool thing,” Hall says.

Hall and his 14-year-old recently finished their first project together: They built an automatic baler for mini-bales of premium hay. Yes – you read that right – mini-bales. “We’re taking these sliced, compressed bales right on down to 3 to 4 pounds,” Hall says.

The automatic baler he and his son designed churns out miniature bales about the size of a shoebox. “There’s always jokes about bunny hay, but you don’t realize how big of a market the small-pet market is,” Hall laughs.

They don’t have a market for mini-bales yet, but Hall’s optimistic the opportunity is there. If you look in the small-pet aisle of a Petco, he says, you see hay prices broken down by the ounce. When you consider what it’s being bought for from a producer (by the ton), there seems like a promising margin there.

Mini-bales may be the next big thing, or not. Either way, moving quality hay in neat, tidy packages is working for the Hall family. And if it isn’t broke … why … well, never mind. The Halls will likely keep tinkering on, anyway.  end mark

PHOTO: A truckload of retail-ready hay gets ready to ship. Tim Hall of Hall’s Hay in Idalia, Colorado, says many of his business partners are people he’s met through the National Hay Association. Photo provided by Tim Hall.

Monica Gokey is a freelance writer and livestock producer based in Idaho.

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