Hay Production: Do you know what is involved?

Hay Production: Do you know what is involved?
It's hay-making season again and we have been fortunate to bale some beautiful, soft, low-sugar hay this season.  This explaining just what is involved in the whole hay-making process, from our perspective.
 
When you have your final product baled and safely in the hay shed, it's always hard to know what to charge people. Being a horse owner myself, I know what it is like to have to buy hay at full price, so I am very mindful of that. 
 
After a recent conversation with a customer purchasing nets from us, where some comments were made about their hay supplier, I thought this was timely to perhaps enlighten people from the 'hay growers' perspective as to the time, effort, and production costs involved. 
 
Side note: We are only small-time hay makers/farmers, having a maximum of 25 acres (10 hectares) to make hay from, so the following is only applicable to our situation and we are by no means hay-making experts.  We have been baling hay for about 15 years now, however, so have seen MANY different seasons and had to problem-solve many different scenarios that occur each year as baling good hay isn't easy!! Our focus is on producing low-sugar, high-quality hay. 
Slow Hay and stablishing your hay

Sowing and establishing your crop or pasture!

Some people may think that the grass, crop or lucerne (alfalfa) just grows every year and the farmer comes along at the 'right time' and cuts the hay, bales it, puts it in the shed, and then puts a high price on it for little effort.

 However, this simply isn't the case.  Sometimes you might be lucky to have a paddock that naturally comes up with good enough species of grass that you can do just that, which occasionally we have been fortunate to be able to do.

What I will discuss here is a 'loose' explanation of the processes, as there are so many variables from paddock to property to terrain, to rainfall, to climate. The most common scenario from the beginning of the whole process is that the paddock that is going to grow the eventual hay needs 'preparing'.  

Depending on the starting condition of the paddock, this will involve various activities.  If the paddock is full of weeds, it may be sprayed out, possibly burnt, or ploughed in to clean up the paddock before sowing.  

Next comes sowing. Different farms use different methods of sowing, some direct drill, others don't. Before you get to this point, you will have already decided what species of plants to sow and have purchased the seeds such as lucerne, oats, wheat, or grass species such as cocksfoot, phalaris, prairie grass, or even more expensive seeds such as native seed.  

If you were to sow a native seed, such as Wallaby Grass, this can be around $375/kg (per 2.2lb) which soon adds up.  The native grass seed is small and light and this would just be a small bag of seed. In comparison, a bulka bag of seed oats is currently around $900, and can carry up to 2 tonnes of seed in NSW, Australia.

At sowing time, fertilizer is usually put out with the seed to ensure there are sufficient nutrients available for the seeds to help them grow and become established plants.  

The paddock is then sown with the chosen seed.  It may or may not have a pre or post-emergent chemical sprayed on the paddock.

Then you pray for rain at the right time and the right amount to enable your paddock to grow. Not too much rain, not too little to allow it to grow and establish!!

Soil testing and Fertilzers

Soil testing and Fertilzers

Soil testing doesn't need to be done every year, but it is a good idea to do it every few years to ensure that the nutrition of your soil is in the best place possible to enable healthy plants to grow. Soil that is deficient in certain minerals, will grow plants that are also lacking.

The soil test can be done at any time and depending on the results may mean you have to apply lime, gypsum, or common fertilizers such as super phosphate (which can often 'lock up' the nutrients). Adding fertilizer is, however, another expense!

As the following diagram shows, if there is one deficiency of an essential element, then this will impact the overall plant yield, so soil tests are very important.

 

Another way of adding nutrients in a more natural form for us is to 'crash graze'. We only 'crash' graze the paddocks (large mob for a short time) during winter to help clean up the paddock and remove excess growth before the Spring growth occurs. This crash grazing allows nutrients to be returned to the soil from manure, but doesn't allow the sheep or cattle to do any major damage to the paddock (hard packing of soil) from long-term grazing.  It also 'forces' them to eat weeds and other things they may not normally eat as they run out of feed quickly. Depending on the mob size, a crash graze could be 3 days to a week.

So other than crash grazing, there is no stock on our paddocks for about 49 weeks of the year as we only use these paddocks for hay production and we don't have any other livestock, so we use our neighbour's livestock.

As we only grow hay, we find that competition means we don't have to spray much. This saves us money of course, but more importantly, means our hay doesn't have chemical residue in it.

Water, Irrigation and Dryland

Water!

Some hay is made using dryland techniques, which means you are at the mercy of Mother Nature regarding rainfall and therefore the performance and growth of your paddock.  Too much rain, especially at the time of cutting might mean you can't even get your hay cut, let alone even conceive the thought of baling.  Too little rain and you will have a lot less leaf and therefore hay, and even worse if in a drought, it might not even be worth cutting at all, so you get no hay at all.  

Right now, our pastures have sprung up again after cutting in Spring and we could actually bale again, but it won't stop raining, which is disappointing as this time  we would primarily just make round bales.

Some farmers have access to irrigation, meaning they can turn on large sprinkler systems or have channels that will allow the plants access to water.  However, this adds another HUGE expense as I am sure I don't need to explain the current power costs of running the pumps.

This irrigation water is also most likely allocated (paid for) and that is another horrendous expense in Australia.  So irrigated hay, whilst often it is very nice hay, comes at a huge cost to both the grower and therefore the purchaser.  Often the grower will 'absorb' a lot of this cost and it isn't passed onto the hay buyer as much as it should be.

For us personally, as dryland hay makers, every year is different and we just learn to 'roll with the punches'.

 Effects of baling hay on your soil! 

Effects of baling hay on your soil!

Another interesting factor that our agronomist informed us of recently is just how much nutrients are extracted from the soil from hay production V's grazing.  What do you think has more impact?? I certainly thought it was grazing!  However, it isn't!  Hay making has by far a MUCH bigger impact on nutrient levels than grazing stock.

The table below shows just how significant this is. For example, if a ryegrass paddock was baled and they were able to get an average of 5t/ha of hay off the paddock, then the approx 150kg of nitrogen is taken from the soil.  However, if 500kg of livestock (or 10 sheep DSE) are grazing the paddock, then only 11kg of nitrogen is taken.  That is a HUGE difference and shows just how much input must be put back into the soil to replenish what has been taken out by baling.

Thanks to Manny at AgriWest Rural Pty Ltd in Forbes for providing me with this information.  Further information can be found here about this topic. 

 

There are just so many variables when making hay and getting it safely into the shed without getting wet during the baling process is something we hope for, however, if it does get a bit wet, as long as you rake it sufficiently to dry, it can still make good hay. In fact, it will be a little lower in sugar if it does get wet while cut and on the ground as this will help leach out some of the sugars. 

No more than 20mm is probably ok, however getting much more rain than that, and no decent drying weather will likely result in hay that will go moldy and not be able to be baled sadly.  It again depends on the humidity as well as to how the hay dries out.  However, the worst-case scenario is that you do need to remove this cut hay off the paddock or it will interfere with the quality of the next season's hay as it will have dead bits through it and not look good.  So sometimes, you may just have to bale the hay, to clean up the paddock when the conditions are eventually ok. 

This results in expense only and no income.  Even if you can sell this hay, it is cattle food only, or mulch (depending on what the hay type is), so you will not recover your costs in baling in the first place.

 Making good hay involves expertise and a LOT of luck!! 😉

 Small Bales V's Round Bales

Small Bales V's Round Bales

So what are some of the reasons a farmer would consider when deciding to make Smalls in preference to round bales??

One reason can be that you can earn a LOT more money for small bales of hay than round bales of hay.   

In the 2022 baling season, we had a great amount of rain in the growing season and had an extreme amount of hay to bale.  The hay was cut and down on the ground drying out to be baled. We had rain coming in the next few days from when it was dried and ready to bale, so we baled the number of smalls we could cope with getting into the shed quickly and safely before the rain and we were happy to put the rest into round bales, simply to get it all off the paddock and we didn't have room for that many smalls. 

In 2022, we made just over 200 x (4x4) round bales and 550 small bales off only a 16ac / 6.5ha paddock, which is phenomenal, and hence why we had so many rounds. The rounds were merely to clean up the remaining hay that was on the ground, otherwise, this hay would have been wasted if it received a good downfall of rain.

The November 2023 season, was an entirely different situation, as we didn't get much rain through winter into the growing season of Spring, and that meant that although we were still going to have enough to bale, it was nowhere near the volume of hay that we achieved the previous year.

This year's hay, despite less rain, was also looking to be lovely soft, good-quality hay.  As we were looking like heading into another drought (which has turned out to be completely the opposite), we decided to put the majority into small bales, and once we reached the number we wanted, the rest would be put into 4x4 round bales.  We therefore pressed around 1000 small bales of hay.   There was also no rain predicted around our baling time, so it was the most relaxed baling we have had in years, if ever!!

The downside is, that we ended up with only 31 - 4x4's, which practically sold as soon as they were made.  This meant some of our usual clientele missed out!  There is nothing we can do about that.  

Profit from Baling Small V's Round Bales

Here's some mathematics for you comparing if we had baled ALL of this hay into smalls, rather than doing 31 small bales...

31 round bales @ $65ea = $2,015

There are 8 to 10 small bales of hay in a round bale.  We put $14 on our Nov 2023 bales because of the softness, quality, input costs, and low sugar levels (which are known as we always get our hay tested).

Had we been able to make the above 4x4's into smalls, we would have made an extra:

31 x 10 is 310 bales. So, 310 x $14 is $4,340.

Therefore by making the 4x4's, we potentially lost around $2325 (31 x 65 = $2015, and $4340 - $2015 = $2325).

We are only talking about a 16-acre (7-hectare paddock). Imagine how much this adds up to if you have hundreds of acres of hay production!

This is something to remember next time you aren't happy with your hay grower making smalls instead of round bales .... it's their bottom line too and some farms only make hay, so they have to spread this income over a whole year. Imagine how much this would add up to hundreds of acres or hectares of hay!

This can happen in reverse too, if a farmer is in a situation of bad weather coming, sometimes they have to put the hay into rounds to simply get it off the paddock and save it from being ruined as at least once it is in a round bale, it can handle some rain if you don't have time to get it in the shed first. So although you may prefer smalls, the farmer may only be able to make the round bales.  We have had to do this a few times to us as well. We wanted smalls, but just couldn't get them baled and in the shed on time.

If small bales get wet once they are actually physically baled and sitting in the paddock, then they need to be 100% dry before putting them into the shed, otherwise, they will go moldy.  Round bales on the other hand can comfortably sit out in the paddock and get wet, and then once dry, they can then be put in the shed as they form a hard crust when baled that protects the inner contents.  Although you may have to throw some of this outer crust away, the general bulk of the hay will be protected. 

   Hay production, contracting, another expense!

Contracting, another expense!

Some farmers own their equipment, some partially make their hay with some contracting, and others just contract the whole job out (cutting, raking, baling and putting in the shed).  We do a mix of contracting and manage to do what we can ourselves.

 As mentioned, we have a great neighbour to cut our hay for us with his mower/conditioner.  The most hay we ever cut is 25ac over 3 paddocks. We have a small rake, so we will often do the raking (hubby), usually borrowing this same neighbour's tractor. This same neighbour will then bale our hay as requested (small and/or round bales). 

Unfortunately for him, it means waiting for the dew to come in if we are baling at night, or waiting for it it start to dry off if baling in the morning.  This can be a very long night for him if conditions are good and the hay is baling well. 

Thankfully he owns an accumulator that puts 'packs' of hay down of 15 small bales together as the hay is baled into small bales.  Then hubby and I set to work to bring this hay into the sheds.  If we have baled smalls, then I drive our old truck and trailer around the paddock, while hubby drives our neighbour's tractor with a hay grab on it picks up every pack of hay, loads it on the truck/trailer I am driving, and then when we have 9 packs of 15 on the trailer and 4 packs of 15 on the truck, I drive into the shed area to be unloaded. We do this over and over again, until every bale is in the shed.

Once the smalls are safely in the shed, then it's the same story for us to bring in the round bales.  We can fit 10 x 4x4's on the truck and 14 on the trailer.

This is a very laborious and time-consuming task, depending on how much hay we make. One year we went 26 hours straight with only 5 hours of sleep to get it in before the incoming weather.  This was only hubby and I working at it and only for 19ac in total, so imagine either the labour needed and also the time it takes for large-scale hay-making operations that are weather-dependent!

Last season (November 2023) was our cruisest ever year with no bad weather predicted, so it took us 3 days (around 6 hours a day) to get the hay in as we were baling over the 3 days as well.  

So we contract out the cutting, and the baling into smalls and rounds. We do the raking ourselves, plus the picking up, transporting, and putting the hay into the shed.

 Testing the Hay!

Testing the Hay!

Once the hay is safely stacked into the shed and therefore sheltered, we can breathe a sigh of relief!

Every year we pay for our hay to be tested. This involves going to at least 20 different bales per paddock and collecting samples of hay from all different locations in the shed, chopping them up into little pieces, mixing it up, weighing and then bagging, labeling, filling out the necessary paperwork, then mailing them off to Feed Central (Toowoomba).  If you contact them, they will send out free test kits and forms and you won't have to pay for postage.  We used to send to Equi-analyitical in the USA, but with approval of importing the hay with the FDA, it was all becoming a little bit too complicated.  However, I believe that Feed Central uses them and forwards the hay samples for testing on the customer's behalf.

Although expensive, as it cost us just under $400 for 3 samples.  Not only does this give us peace of mind that we have genuinely produced low-sugar hay, but it also is a source of relief for those with laminitis-prone horses and ponies to know that the hay they are purchasing is genuinely low in sugar. Not having to soak the hay is a HUGE task to be relieved from. However, this is another cost of production. 

Below is an example of the hay test from one of our paddocks.  It turned out to be VERY good hay.  A protein level of 9% is fine when feeding overweight/laminitis-prone horses and ponies.  Also to note in particular is the ESC + Starch levels. Added together, these will give you your total sugar levels for the hay.  In this case, it is 5.65 + 0.95 = 6.6%   Anything under 10% is what you are looking for laminitic/overweight/EMS ponies and horses.  Also worth noting, is the ADF%.  If this is over 45%, then it can be harder for the horses to extract nutrients from but is still good chew food.  ADF typically increases with the life of the plant, so if you bale your hay later in the season, expect the ADF to be higher.

 

Here is the link to our 3 samples of hay that we tested this year if you would like to view it.  The 3ac and 16acres are sown to the same pasture mix, whereas the 6ac is naturally occurring and improving by itself year after year as more native plants grow and then set seed.

 Hay production- Ultimate Goal!

Ultimate Goal!

At this time, once the hay is safely in the shed, we then sit down to look at the current market, how much it cost us to bale, and all other expenses involved in making the hay to then set a price for that seasons hay.

This has been a summary of our own experience only and therefore only accurate for our situation and is not intended as advice!  Every year is different, depending on the season. Please consult your local Agronomist, farmer, or hay-making contractor for advice specific to your situation if you are baling your own hay!  From a purchaser position, we hope this enlightens you and allows you to be a little more sympathetic to your hay supplier. 😉  

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