The Forage Doctor

Dr. Jimmy Henning, Extension Professor, Forage Specialist, University of Kentucky

They said I had iron toxicity.

One of the constants in the forage world seems to be the love-hate relationship that practicing agriculturalists have with haymaking. We spend a lot of time talking about cutting management, hay testing, curing and baling tweaks and so on. Baler makers have developed lines of balers that will net wrap (old news) but also semi-chop moist hay to encourage the ensiling process.

It is the ‘other hand’ point of view that leads to this article. A nationally-recognized economist recently told me that he felt that the biggest challenge to the profitability of cattle operations was iron toxicity. Meaning their hay making equipment costs were eating up the profits of their cattle enterprise. While I am sure his statement was based on hard numbers, it has always struck me as oversimplification of a complex situation.

The problem is that university experts can endorse two separate points of view (make hay vs all grazing and buying hay) without acknowledging and reconciling them. So I am going to think through this with you over the next few paragraphs.

First, a disclaimer: I am not an economist, have never claimed to be, and after this article will probably be outlawed from using the word and taken off their Christmas card list!

Observation 1. The average cattle operation in Kentucky is a part-time enterprise. The commodity in shortest supply is time. Completing all tasks on time using the most cost effective and economically optimized methodology is a worthy but often unattainable goal.

Observation 2. Farmers are by nature a conservative group. Farmers must manage risk, looking for safety nets wherever possible. Livestock enterprises are doubly complex because animals have to eat and drink every day. Having a buffer of feed against a drought is a key safety net. Being in control of their cutting time and the source of their hay supply is a safety net and a risk management tool. Owning the equipment to do this does have a cost, but the ‘sleep at night factor’ has a value as well. In a perfect world, a farmer could sell they hay equipment and just buy hay when needed. This scenario can and does work for some.

In reality, farmer practice says they greatly prefer to have control over their feed supply by being able to make their own hay. This ability does give them a chance to reap the benefits of improved forages, more optimum cutting dates and curing, but above all it removes a risk that they will not find hay of the desired quality at a proper price.

Observation 3. Grazing year-round in Kentucky is challenging and in some years impossible. The seasonality of our cool-season base forages means that two-thirds of the annual production has occurred by the time you read this article. The prevailing thought is that we can probably graze 330 days of the year with a combination of rotational grazing, annuals (summer and winter), and stockpiling. I And I believe that Kentucky producers should graze as much as they can. That is not to say that every day grazing is always the cheapest way to feed livestock.

Hay making is a staple of Kentucky cattle farms. Is it holding back my farm profitability?

My conclusions.

  • Hay making is expensive. Equipment is not cheap so watch your spending. Keep your costs as low as possible. Finding a reliable, compatible partner to share costs can be a good way to lower costs.
  • Make the best hay possible. Making bad hay is expensive even with low equipment costs. Bad hay limits production, costs money and wastes time – the commodity in shortest supply. A compelling argument can be made that it may be more economical to make haylage (a higher cost option) because the product is better and there is greater animal output per forage input.
  • Making your own hay can still be consistent with operating an economically efficient operation, and will contribute greatly to the ‘sleep at night factor.’ This factor has value, but is hard to quantify in hay making budgets.
  • Know your costs of operation. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. What does it cost to make hay? Is there a cheaper source of nutrients? You are probably not going to sell your hay making equipment even if you find a source, but it will give you back some time.

Perhaps all of the ‘university’ experts stretched end-to-end might still not reach a conclusion on the economics of owning hay-making equipment. But there are some darn good reasons to.

Happy foraging.