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Two brothers and an idea

Martha Hoffman Kerestes for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2021
Hay storage

Miles and Caleb von Stein grew up making hay on a small scale for family and neighbors in northwestern Ohio, and they thought expanding might be a way to get into farming as young people where most land is in corn and soybeans.

“We always wanted to farm for sure, and the baling came as a way to start farming without taking acres from our dad and uncle,” Miles says.

After some smaller FFA forage projects, the brothers scaled up the business in 2010, beginning with a field of wheat straw. Caleb had just graduated high school, and Miles was in college and working, and they told their dad they would bale the full 50 acres.

von Stein barn

All the work was by hand, stacking racks and stacking again in the family’s bank barn. Their dad didn’t think they could do that much, but they persisted and got the whole field baled.

“The rest is history, I guess,” Caleb says.

Growing from the ground up

Over the next few years, the brothers expanded their scale to 10,000 bales, then 20,000 to 30,000 bales, reinvesting profits into upgraded equipment and storage facilities that allowed them to fit baling into their busy schedule with full-time jobs after college.

Custom work was a way to pay off their larger equipment faster, so they did around 25,000 custom bales, mostly straw, for several years. It was a lot of headache since their big job was on the other side of the county and fell at the same time as their second-cutting hay and straw baling. They’ve scaled that back now and only do hay for close neighbors.

The county had a program to pay farmers to seed hay, and some neighbors didn’t have hay equipment, so the von Steins got to expand with more rented acres and making hay on halves. The hay enterprise grew by 20 to 30 acres a year with these additions and more rented acres from their father.

Storage hay barn

They built several hay storage barns over several years, beginning in 2014. The flat storage and bulk handling with grapples saves time and labor compared to storing hay in the family’s historic bank barns.

Caleb says it was easy to get hay help from high school or college friends in the beginning – but as they graduated and everyone got full-time jobs, it got harder. In addition, it was costing around 25 cents a bale to stack in barns and take out again, and with flat storage and mechanical handling the cost is down to 10 cents a bale.

Today, they make 155 acres of hay, plus wheat straw, with a goal of 70,000 bales a year in total.

Premium with a backup plan

Premium alfalfa and orchardgrass mixed small squares are their target, and a 50-pound bale is best for their customers, usually horse owners. They serve buyers of all sizes, from a single horse to large stables and a local university equine program. They’ll deliver with a gooseneck trailer as far as two-and-a-half hours away, and if it’s farther they’ll hire a semi.

Making dry hay can be a challenge, but with aftermarket rolls on the discbine and tedding once or twice, they’re usually able to make hay in three to four days. They use Silo-King, a forage additive, on the baler when forced to bale hay on the wetter side at 18% to 20% moisture. Caleb says it pays for itself by keeping the hay cooler during the sweat period, keeping it from getting dusty.

Still, there’s no preventing the occasional rained-on hay or other reduction in quality, so they have other options – a local dairy will take baleage when a cutting needs to be wrapped wet, and local beef producers will buy less-than-premium quality.

The family also keeps a small cattle herd.

“They’re our dumpsters,” Miles says with a laugh.

von Stein cattle

Half-a-dozen cow-calf pairs and around 50 head of feeder-to-finish cattle are able to recoup the value of hay that gets soiled by raccoons or straw that mice get into.

Most finished steers go to Tyson, but their freezer beef market is growing. The cows give the brothers opportunity to try experiments like growing double-crop barley and soybeans.

Both brothers are balancing farming with other jobs. Miles runs a Beck’s seed dealership and drives school bus, and this allows a good amount of flexibility to fit hay making in as needed. Caleb works at a beverage can factory with four days on and four days off on 12-hour shifts, and he tries to schedule hay deliveries on his days off.

The future

Looking ahead, they’d both love to farm full time. They don’t see the forage business expanding much more, so they hope to see the row crop operation grow with more acres, particularly owned ones.

“We’d like to purchase ground here soon,” Miles says. “But so does everybody else.”

They’re taking over more management responsibility as their father steps back from the row crop side of the farm. They’re transitioning some of their land to organic with several years of hay. They fertilize the transition ground with chicken litter, and yields are staying steady from what they’ve seen.

Simply growing regular corn and soybeans sounds almost boring to the brothers. They love trying and learning new things and being diversified.

“We thrive on a challenge,” Caleb says.

von Stein family

The farm is a family affair, and their parents help in various ways. Miles’ wife, Melissa; and Caleb’s wife, Carlie, pitch in driving the tractor and bringing meals. The next generation is quite young still, with children 5 years old and under, but they ride along in the truck as Melissa and Carlie drive the custom 200-bale wagons back and forth from the field to the barns for stacking.

Making dry hay

The hay business is one that most large, established farms in their area don’t want to bother with, but Miles and Caleb find it rewarding to work directly with their customers.

Competition from Western hay production doesn’t worry them. They’re closer to their customers and don’t have the long-haul trucking costs, and they’re selling to customers who aren’t generally needing semitrailer quantities.

Making dry hay

They don’t advertise, and they take hay to a nearby auction mostly to keep a finger on the pulse of current hay prices that normally run $6 to $10 per bale.

“Our marketing strategy is word-of-mouth and a good product,” Miles says. “Good hay just sells itself.”

von Stein equipment

As they grow and plan for the future, they still love the forage side of the operation and appreciate how it got them started.

“There’s no way we’d be where we are without the hay and straw,” Miles says.  end mark

PHOTO 1, 2 & 3: The flat storage hay barns the family has built since 2014 save time and labor when handling their inventory.

PHOTO 4: Half-a-dozen cow-calf pairs and around 50 head of feeder-to-finish cattle.

PHOTO 5: Farming is a family affair for the von Stein family.

PHOTO 6, 7 & 8: Making dry hay can be a challenge, but with aftermarket rolls on the discbine and tedding once or twice, they’re usually able to make hay in three to four days. Photos by the von Stein family.

Martha Hoffman Kerestes is a freelance writer based in Illinois.