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Hay brings the farm forward

Martha Hoffman Kerestes for Progressive Forage Published on 31 December 2021
Bryan Gvillo and family

When Bryan Gvillo baled and sold his first 3,500 square bales at 16, he had no clue what the hay business would become.

He was just a teenager with a terrifying $5,000 loan to pay his hay help and some worn-out hay machinery, but he had encouragement from his parents and experience from helping on the family farm that raised 300 head of cattle and 300 acres of catfish in west-central Alabama.

Although he didn’t plan for it to take off like it did, three years into the business saw Gvillo making 40,000 bales by hand – and 22 years after that first bale, he’s still growing to meet the demand from feed stores across the South.

And that’s been a blessing, since they had to stop fish farming almost two decades ago when trade agreements meant imported fish that cut prices by more than half.

“The hay business has been good to us,” he says.

Staying diverse

Still, the family tries to stay diversified, even as the hay business provides the primary income on the farm. Their other venture is an event venue built 19 years ago that has hosted everything from weddings to continuing education retreats, and the farm provides a backdrop for activities like hunting and hay rides.

The legacy from fish farming days means there’s almost 100 acres of bass and crappie ponds for guests to fish, and the Gvillos will get together with friends and take their kids fishing when they’re not in the hayfield.

The farm’s name – Old South Fish & Hay – honors the legacy of fish farming, even though Gvillo doesn’t miss some of the unpleasant and time-consuming parts of the enterprise.

These days, the Gvillos bale hay off around 700 acres of improved bermudagrass, with a goal of four to five cuttings depending on the weather. This year wasn’t too cooperative, since a year’s worth of rain fell in just three months this summer. Because of that, they’ll only have 100,000 to 155,000 bales this year compared to their usual 200,000.

Gvillos bale hay off around 700 acres

They supply feed stores in a 250-mile radius and employ a full-time truck driver, leaving a full 53-foot van trailer at each store and taking the empty one home. That accounts for 80% of their sales, with the other 20% sold directly to customers, especially horse owners.

With their current demand, they usually run out of inventory in March until the middle of May, when new crop becomes available. To fill the gap, they’re expanding another 100 to 200 acres this coming year. While Gvillo isn’t totally sure when they’ll stop growing, he thinks it’s on the horizon.

“I could see us topping out between 250,000 and 300,000 bales a year,” he says.

With two self-propelled mower conditioners and two square balers that each pull a Bale Baron, 50 to 60 acres and 5,000 to 6,000 bales makes an easy day of work. They’ve even done 8,000 bales on a long day.

Loading logistics

It takes seven to eight people in the field on baling day, with two people baling, two people running loaders to pick up bundles, one or two people loading the flatbed semi with the bundles, someone else to drive the semi and one more person at the hay sheds unloading (usually Gvillo’s dad, Curtis).

Resillience of hay is one of the things Gvillo appreciates

A recent addition has cut time loading in half – a grapple that holds two bundles instead of one.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” Gvillo says.

Their volume of hay requires major storage space, and they’ve built three steel-framed buildings (longer-lasting than wood, especially in their area where termites are a major concern): One is 120 feet by 100 feet, another is 168 feet by 135 feet, and the last is 100 feet by 225 feet.

Termites aren’t the only insects to worry about – a colony of fire ants is like running sand through hay equipment, but that pest has been decreasing somewhat with treatment.

A pest emerges

Six years ago, a new pest came through their area, and now they have to spray every seven to 10 days for the bermudagrass stem maggot from the first week of July to the middle of September or early October. Gvillo says the silver lining is: Army worms aren’t a problem anymore because spraying takes care of them, too.

With all the challenges of this growing season, from too much rain to drought and fungus to insect pressure, Gvillo is glad to be leaving the 2021 growing season behind.

“That’s what a farm always does – hopes for a better year the next year,” he says.

The resilience of hay is one of the things Gvillo appreciates about the crop. If there’s a drought for a month or two, for example, the hay will start growing again when it rains again. It’s not as good with row crops, since they have just one crop harvest per year.

Until half-a-dozen years ago, the family grew cotton, wheat and double-crop soybeans, but keeping up two sets of equipment was a challenge, and it made sense for them to focus just on hay.

“It fits our operation well,” Gvillo says.

And while his 16-year-old self wasn’t planning on building a livelihood on hay when he baled his first season, today he looks back with gratitude at how everything worked out to allow the hay business to grow the way it did.

“We’ve had periods of growth, we’ve had some setbacks – but it’s been a good business,” he says.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Left to right: Bryan Gvillo and his wife, Nancy; Bryan’s sister Jenny holding Bryan’s son William; Bryan’s son Benson; and Bryan’s parents, Rejeana and Curtis

PHOTO 2: These days, the Gvillos bale hay off around 700 acres of improved bermudagrass, with a goal of four to five cuttings depending on the weather.

PHOTO 3: The resilience of hay is one of the things Gvillo appreciates about the crop. If there’s a drought for a month or two, for example, the hay will start growing again when it rains again. It’s not as good with row crops, since they have just one crop harvest per year. Photos provided by Bryan Gvillo.

Martha Hoffman Kerestes is a freelance writer based in Illinois.

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