View Full Version : Growing Hay 101

Feb. 29, 2012, 09:35 PM
Hey Everyone,

I am finally at that place in my life where I can start work on my master plan. Step one of that plan is to buy land and produce quality horse hay.

I am hoping to have the land pay for itself in a few years ( and the equipment needed). After that, profits will be reinvested to expand this little enterprise and hopefully one day grow into that large horse farm I always wanted and still keep enough working hay land to feed my own stable.

But before I even start, I am looking for resources that will help me learn about what equipment I will need. I will be buying used equipment and I know diddly about any of it. I also need to find out how to grow good quality horse hay. I know I want to grow an Alfalfa mix and some straight Timothy and/or Orchard grass, but I don't know which will be the easiest to start with.

So, I am asking for your help in locating resources with this information, websites, books, ect. and personal experiences would all be appreciated greatly.

Thank You in advance!

Feb. 29, 2012, 10:51 PM
So you want to know how to make a small fortune in farming ...

The simple answer is start with a large fortune ! :lol:

Okay ... seriously. I started with the horses and am three years into growning hay. First ... what does your market want? Then start with the extension agent in your area. They are the source for info, expertise and contacts.

Mar. 1, 2012, 03:53 AM
Extension agent. The type of hay you grow will depend entirely on the soil and climate of the land you buy. He/she will tell you what you can plant and what you can expect and what you can do to enhance your soil if you want to plant something different. They can probably talk to you about the market in your area, but all this is entirely dependent on your area and really only your extension agent can tell you about that. It will start with soil samples, then you will likely have to purge your land of whatever it is growing at the time, wait for a period and plant; possibly even plant some green manure crops for a few seasons, etc., but this will depend entirely on the soil samples.

When you buy your land, you may want to take soil samples first and have these conversations with the extension agent before you make your offer, and use that to determine if the property is even the one you want to buy. That's how specific the extension agent's conversation with will be. Even more so, you will want to buy land which is already cleared, and you will want to inspect and make sure that there are drains in low spots etc. Wet spots can eliminate entire acres of product from your fields, and buying land which is in hay, for example, but has not been managed well as per drains and weeds can add alot of expense to your plans. this can help you eliminate potential properties to buy, or give you bargaining power to lower the asked for price. But its your extension agent who can tell you what to look for and what you have in a property you want to farm.

Mar. 1, 2012, 10:16 AM
The www.haytalk.com (http://www.haytalk.com) forum is an excellent resource. Lots of knowledgeable hay farmers who have answered all your questions before.

I would recommend that you talk to your county extension agent, and hook up with someone who does custom work. It's probably best if you grow your hay, and pay someone else to bale it, and watch/learn from what they do. Soil samples are very important-- some areas that appear "just fine," will have poor soil and cost too much to renovate for hay. Soil samples will let you know what your ground needs for proper hay growth. You will also likely need to spray with herbicide, to kill whatever weeds are growing on the land now.

Alfalfa seed is the most expensive; timothy and orchardgrass is pretty cheap and easy to grow. Alfalfa needs to be cut every 28-30 days or so (before it blooms out), whereas a pure grass stand is only cut twice (maybe 3 times) per season.

You didn't say how much land you are looking for...this is pretty important to know what kind/how much equipment, and costs for seed/fertilizer etc. Also, there is a lot of labor involved (unless you want to spend even MORE on equipment, for accumulators and bale handlers). Making hay is a lot of work, a lot of expense, but very rewarding if it makes you happy.

Tamara in TN
Mar. 1, 2012, 10:39 AM
So you want to know how to make a small fortune in farming ...

The simple answer is start with a large fortune ! :lol:

Okay ... seriously. I started with the horses and am three years into growning hay. First ... what does your market want? Then start with the extension agent in your area. They are the source for info, expertise and contacts.

where is my like button?? :)


Mar. 1, 2012, 11:46 AM
We did what you are doing about 20-25 years ago. We
did have the advantage of buying in the 1980s when the
"farm crisis" was pretty bad so both farmland and used
farm equipment were available for modest prices.

In addition to talking to extension and also the soil services
folks in the county, see if you can find some local farmers
and have coffee with them and pick their brains. Don't
be proud, my DH learned quite a lot from a neighbor's
16 year old son who had grown up on a neighboring
farm. Ask the local FFA teacher which kid or kids would
be helpful for you to hire for odd jobs.

We purchased a textbook at the local agricultural college
called FORAGES which went into great detail on what
types grow best where and how to cultivate them. This
book learning helps to supplement what the experienced
farmers in your area can offer.

Choose your equipment with a thought for which
implement dealerships are close by. You will need parts.
Also, either know how to do repairs or take some vo-tech
classes NOW on repairing farm machinery. You will be
doing it...often. Consider buying a junker bailer and/or
mower and/or rake of the same type as the good one you
purchase so you can strip parts from it. Sometimes you
do not have time to get to the dealer for another part.

Mar. 1, 2012, 11:53 AM
Buying used equipment? Without having any knowledge of the equipment or specifically how to fix it, you probably will have issues. Stuff breaks, often. Most of the time it's piddly and a ten minute fix, but you still have to know how to do it. Even new equipment has maintanence, and paying someone to do it will suck any profits away. If you or your partner isn't really comfortable around a tool box, you may want to re-consider. For example, if the knotters on your baler decide to act up, and you can't fix it, the chances of getting it repaired by a shop before it rains are probably slim to none. The other issue is labor. Nobody want to do squares. They suck. DH and I put up our hay alone. Anymore, because I'm getting too old for this crap, we put up enough squares for our own horses, with little leftover to sell. We have a guy round bale the rest (we can't justify the cost of a round baler), and if we sell any it's the round bales. If I ever win the lottery my hay will be delivered on semi's!

As for varieties of hay, in addition to your extension agent, your local seed/fertilizer dealer is one of your best sources of information. They know the soil types, the climate, and what has been most successful in your area.

Mar. 2, 2012, 09:15 PM
Planting and growing the hay is by far the easy part of the process. Trust me. Harvesting is tricky and a fairly exact science that is learned by trail and error. There is plenty of information on the process but again it is NOT as straight forward as it sounds. Especially in the eastern parts of the country due to short “weather windows” and high humidity. We are located in SE PA so my experience is based on this geographic area and may or may not completely apply to your area of Ohio. Though I think it would be close.
As others have said your county extension agent should be able to tell what is best suited for you area. Ohio is a fairly big Ag state from I have seen driving from the south to northeast so I don’t think you will have much of a problem finding decent land. If you locate in a farming belt the county extension agency should have very detailed maps of the type of soil to be found in any give area. How detailed you want to get would depend on how may acres you want to work with and expectations. Timothy is the most well known and was developed in the Northeast, New Hampshire I believe. It is not named for the person who first cultivated but rather for the person who marketed well. It grows best in cooler climates, northern PA, NY, MA, NH and I from what I understand very well in Ohio. It is not that much different in nutritional quality then Orchard but it does have a broader leaf which can lead to a better yield. One would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a second cutting of Timothy and Orchard. Orchard grass is also a cool season grass but is a bit more tolerant of dry conditions and grows well in a much broader range of soil conditions. It also mixes well with other grasses and alfalfa. Both are clump grass meaning they don’t spread with time. I have never had much luck with letting it go to seed and adding to the stand. 5 acres of a decent/good stand of Orchard when everything goes right yields us around 400++ bales at 40lbs per bale that is 8 tons per cutting. In a good year we have no problem getting 3 cuttings. Again growing it is the easy part. We hayed around 45 acres and this year and got around 2 ½ cuttings in the barn. Had to leave a lot of 3rd cutting in the field due to no weather window from mid-August until the end of the season. Too much rain which followed a rather dry second cutting. Still we able to put up more then enough to feed 40+ horses through the winter and sell some. But we would have made many $$$ with a complete 3rd cutting.
As a one man operation, on the cutting and baling end I found I am comfortable cutting and baling around 10 acres at a time. A bit more if I have someone running a second tractor tedding, turning the hay over, and raking, making it into windrows for baling. I need 3 to 4 days of sun and average humidity in the high 40% to low 50% to get 10 acres in. Getting it in the barn and freeing up a wagon is the time consuming part. To make it go smoothly you will need 2 wagons (ours are steel sided 8X18 hay wagons) and at least 2 people to stack while the other person is raking and or baling. Timing is everything! I have 4 to work with so if the weather window closes suddenly I can still bale and cover. Because of the humidity we can’t start until around 10:00+ when the dew is gone and have to stop baling around 5-6 when the humidity really starts to go up. So there is only around 7 hours to work with. Another reason to have lots of wagons. But they aren’t cheap.
Anyone that complains about the cost of a good bale of hay has never grown and baled any! It can be incredibly tricky and frustrating. Especially the first cutting. You can read all you want about the process but it is totally a learned process given the location. It becomes very much intuitive. In any given year expect to loose around 20% of expected yield. And some years as much if not more then 50% for various reasons. Good yield requires good soil and fertilizer. We spent $4000 on fertilizer this year. A mixed stand of alfalfa and orchard can be tricky and not warrant the cost of the alfalfa seed. County extension can tell you but better to talk to local hay people about their experience. Alfalfa is tricky to cut and dry down I am told. Going to try around 5 acres this year in an area where the orchards has thinned. Don’t be talked into buying hay seed mixed with clover! Clover does not dry at the same rate as the grass hay and will spoil the bale. It spreads rapidly when it goes to seed and hard to get rid of. Got that T-shirt. The equipment needed is pretty much the same for 5 acres or 100. Just the size and number of wagons will be different. Unless you hit the lottery a small operation can only justify buying used equipment. As pointed out by others it can and will break. How much or often depends on how lucky you are after buying the equipment. Sellers of balers will usually be able to give you an honest idea of how may bales have gone through it. The knotter is the most complicated part and most prone to problems. It cost me around $2,500 to have mine rebuilt on a New Holland (NH) 570 baler. And it only breaks when you are using it. We live in an Ag area so the repair people respect the cost of down time and get over ASAP. But a major breakdown may take a couple of days. Around here with short windows that pretty much guarantees anything laying in the field will be lost or of poor quality due to sun bleaching. Did I mention frustrating and stressful as part of the process? Nothing worse then seeing beautiful hay going to waste! And you still have to bale it up and get rid of it! I lay hay down with a old (late 80s) NH 411 disc-bine 9 foot wide. ALWAYS lash down the PTO shafts when transporting. I didn’t once because I was only going a “short” distance. It feel off jack knifed and broke. 2 days latte and a $1,000 I was back in business. Did the same thing with my rake. Cost me a partial cutting. Did I mention frustrating and stress full? It has “issues” but I am mechanically inclined. These are pretty reliable if inspected and run before buying. Run being the operative word. How good the paint looks or lack of dents is not indicative of a well maintained machine. Rakes and tedders can take a beating. There are a number of different types. I use a 10 ft rotary rake and tedder. Over time the gears get warn and have to be replaced. On my Kuhn rake that cost around $1,800. My tedder is a low end New Idea combination tedder/rake. So if my rake breaks it is a back up. It works OK as both. And would recommend it for a small operation of 20 acres or so. But it always has minor “issues”. The wider the rake and tedder the faster the process will go. Go with as new a equipment as you can justify and or afford! My kingdom for brand new equipment!
Making good hay is one of the most difficult of all Ag products and IMO is under priced even at the high end. Look at the cost of good straw and that is a by product and other then loosing a bit of color getting rained on is no big deal.
There is a lot of satisfaction along with huge savings in a barn full of good hay. But it is a real art. It has taken me several years and a lot of lost hay and hard work to get reasonably good at it. Remember these two things; Only cut only as much as you can afford to loose and it takes the same amount of work to put up bad hay as good!
The following is what used hay equipment goes for around here. We are in a large Ag area.
The size of equipment is based on the size of the tractor, over all HP, weight and the power at the PTO (very important for mower). We have a JD 5525 4WD 90hp, 75hp at the PTO.
NH 570 baler with hay thrower (very important) late 90s. $7-10,000
NH late 80s 411 disc-bine hay mower, around $2-3,000
Kuhn 10ft rotary rake, early 90s, $2-3,500 with newish tines, check condition of tines, there are a lot of them and cost $$$
New Idea tedder/rake $1,500-2,500
There are all kinds of hay wagons, no sides, wood sides, steel sides. IMO you have to have a bale thrower so the wagons have to have sides to be a 1 person operation. They have to be well made so as to withstand 40-50lbs bales constantly being thrown in them.
We use the “gold” standard for around here. 8X18 steel sided, back opens completely with two side access openings. Stacked they will hold around 200 bales, tossed in around 140-175 depending on how good you are. $2-4,000
Decent smaller wood sided can be had for around $800++

Sorry to be long winded but I find way too many people don’t know or appreciate how difficult and expensive it is to make good hay. I know I didn’t

Mar. 3, 2012, 09:40 AM
Hay can be produced in one of two ways, in general: either as a byproduct (hay made from cover crops, etc.) or as a standalone crop (like what Production Acres and other producers make). You look like you're headed in the "stand alone" directions.

Get out your yellow pad and pencil.

First, do a "market survey" on the cost of good quality hay in your area, delivered and stacked in your barn. This will be your "price point."

Now figure out how much it will cost you for a minimum equipment set (tractor, seeder, spreader, sprayer, bailer, conditioner, tedder, wagon). Note that some of these items may be available for rent from your local Soil Conservation Office. Check that, too.

Then cost out, on a per hour basis, operating the equipment. Don't forget to depreciate it, 'cause it does. Note that with newer equipment the price will be higher but the maintenance less. With older gear you spend less up front but will have to be much more savvy in its operation and repair.

Then calculate the cost of seed, lime, fertilizer, weed killer, etc.

Then calculate the cost to prepare, seed, fertilize spray, etc.

Then calculate the expected yield from the fields.

Then calculate the cost to cut, tedd, bale, etc. Add to this the cost to pickup and stack in the barn (apply an hourly rate for you if you're not hiring outside labor).

Then calculate the cost per bale or ton, as stacked in the barn.

Compare this to your price point.

Now make your decision.

Note that in this I did not add any education expenses for you (as you seem to indicate that you've never done this before). In reality most of your education will be from The School Of Hard Knocks. Included in this will be the losses that you incure when your tractor or bailer fails just as a thunderstorm is approaching. That price is not one that's easily obtained. ;)