Sunday, August 3, 2014

All hays are the same, right? Nope

What's inside?
 Jeff commented yesterday on hay prices in this area:
. "Washington alfalfa hay does go for $18-20 bale around here, but those are usually 125 lb bales or so. My old landlord bought them and I know how heavy they are! A guy near you is selling E. Washington alfalfa for $330/ton delivered in 125 lb bales. You can get cheaper if you want to buy round or big squares. "

Jeff is making the assumption that basically all hay is the same, and that the primary, maybe only, criteria for hay is the price per ton.  In the example he gives, the $330 a ton hay, there's a number of people who own semi-trucks or gooseneck trailers, and they get an order for hay, and go over to eastern washington, a couple of hundred miles away, pick it up, and then deliver it.  Some of them stack as part of the deal, some don't.  Some will give you some time to unload, with an hourly fee for time over that.  So even though you know the price per ton, your total cost when you get it into your barn may be different.    In fact, if you go look on the eastern washington craigslist, you can find alfalfa hay for a lot less than $330 a ton.  Take a look.

One word of caution though:  my grass/alfalfa is organic and it's in small square bales.  None of the other stuff is. and most of the cheaper tonnage is in big square bales.  Here's the market report for washington hay.
 I mention the truck because the guy who puts that advertisement out isn't the guy who grew that hay,  and in fact, you probably won't know where the hay comes from -- mostly because the guy may be concerned that you'll go buy it from them directly and cut him out of the deal.  In talking with these guys, it's pretty common for them to have a list of farms they've purchased from before, but they're always looking for a low cost supplier -- and that's because a lot of the people they sell to only make their hay buying decision based on price.  

Now that's not true of professional hay consumers -- dairies, for instance, want the feed value tested and get that from large brokers.  But if you're not buying semi-loads of alfalfa at $15k a load, you're not getting that kind of service.  

I've purchased good hay, and I've purchased poor hay.  The price per ton isnt' really a reflection on whether it will work for you, or is palatable to your animals, or is even a good fit for your animals.  

The hay that my cows liked best - read ate fastest, and showed a distinct preference for - was produced by an organic dairy farmer who makes hay for his dairy herd, and clearly does a great job of it.  I think that Dennis has some hay for sale this year; 425-754-6847.  He does mostly round bales, but it's good stuff.  
Blackberries in this field
 The very best quality hay grown in eastern washington is usually sent for export.  We have an odd market here -- we get millions of shipping containers full of all sorts of stuff from the far east, and they have to ship them back to the far east to fill them with more stuff.  So we have very cheap transport from here to japan and china and so the containers get filled with all sorts of stuff that wouldn't normally be shipped.  So containers of hay, logs, sawdust and other items get shipped all the time.  And the japanese pay a good price for our hay; and keep the local market high as a result.

The price is high for the best-quality stuff.  There's plenty of smaller producers who don't produce enough quantity or consistent quality for export, and that's whats typically available on the local market.  

So the guy who wants to sell a truckload over here goes down his list, and who you get your hay from is not random, but pretty close.  Some people do a great job.  Some people don't.  Some of it got rained on. Some of it didn't.  You never know; and the guy with the truck may not know either.  In fact, the guy that the truck driver purchased from may not be a farmer, but may be a broker themselves, which adds one more layer.

The point I'm making is that you're going to get all sorts of different quality levels and when it comes off the truck is the first time you'll get to see that hay.    
what percent weed?
What I like to see when I buy hay is that the person producing the hay is using it for their own operation, and ideally, for the same sort of animal  you're feeding.  So If I'm after cow hay, I'm going to seek out a dairy or a beef operator and buy from them.  If I'm feeding horses, a horse place that puts up their own.  Because they know what their animals like, and because it's their own stock on the line, they have some money on the table, some skin in the game.

Too many times I've seen wrapped bales that contain very low quality hay  The bales in the picture at the top of this post are probably fine; the weeds and blackberries in the field that they were cut from probably won't hurt anything; but you're paying for the weeds with your hay dollars.

Even hay that is less weed challenged can be nutritionally weak -- watching the commercial guy manage his hay field across the road from me, he's on it fertilizing it the day after haying; in fact, andrews hay does a pretty good job managing the land that they rent overall.  Knowing your hay guy is a big part of a hay purchase for me

In my case, I took 40 tons of dry matter, organic material, from my field in my hay cutting.  And I'm putting it back with manure from my lagoon.  But too many hay producers around here just cut, and cut, and cut and don't put the value back into the soil they took out.

So what I'm after with my hay is to vertically integrate my forage capacity with my farm operations.  Sure, I may be able to get hay cheaper this year, but my crystal ball isn't that good for next year, and I've seen forage prices both up and down.   With this haying experience in hand, and the expectation of lower costs for the coming years, I'd say that this was good and I'll do it again.

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