The growing price of hay
by Kathryn Purcell | photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Golden, tightly spiraled and taller than a person, bales of hay have started to dot the fields of Morgan County with the conclusion of the first phase in this year's hay season. While at first glance it would seem that hay bales were haphazardly dropped from the sky, any Morgan County hay producer will attest to the fact that this is definitely not the case.
The crop takes time and manpower to harvest. And, with the price of fuel setting record highs practically daily, it is also taking an increasing amount of money to grow and gather the crop, so much so that many local hay producers are struggling to keep up with the costs of production.
Hay accounts for between 14,000 and 15,000 acres of land in Morgan County, according to Morgan County Cooperative Extension Coordinator Bobby Smith.
The season begins in February with a combination of Fescue and Ryegrass, two varieties of hay. Fescue, a perennial that becomes dormant in the summer, doesn't always have to be re-seeded. Ryegrass, on the other hand, an annual that dies in the heat of summer, must be re-seeded around February. Both are harvested towards the end of May.
Bermuda Grass, a third variety of hay grown locally, is cultivated and harvested during the summer. After the summer months, Fescue and Ryegrass combination can be grown and harvested through the fall.
The cost of seed totals about $25 per 50-pound bag, according to Pat Hardy, Sr., a local hay producer.
"It takes nearly $20 an acre in seed cost," Hardy said.
Fertilizer, whether it be granular nitrogen or chicken litter, is also applied to the hay in an effort to aid growth and increase crop yield.
Granular nitrogen goes for $525 per ton, according to Smith. Just three years ago, it cost less than $300 per ton.
"You have to use gas to make the pellets," Smith said, speaking to the effects of the cost of fuel. "Also, because of the weak dollar, other countries are starting to buy it. Demand is higher, so the price goes up."
Chicken litter, an alternative to granular nitrogen, currently costs between $60 and $80 per ton, according to Smith, compared to around $35 per ton previously.
Fuel isn't the only reason the cost of chicken litter is increasing.
In the past, chicken houses were cleaned five to six times a year, whenever a new batch of chickens came in. Of course, this meant that chicken litter was more readily available. Currently, instead of cleaning the chicken houses out with each batch, poultry producers are told to put down a thin layer of wood chips between batches.
"There's less chicken litter because they (poultry producers) don't clean with every batch; they clean once a year," Smith said. "But, the nutrients in the litter are more concentrated."
One ton of granular nitrogen covers roughly 10 acres at a cost of about $60 per acre, Hardy said. Further, the granular nitrogen only lasts for one cutting. Chicken litter, on the other hand, costs between $30 and $35 per acre and lasts for several cuttings.
"With the price of fertilizer, you can't find chicken litter," Hardy said. "We used to could buy litter cheap but, one, the price of fertilizer went up and, two, the cost of hauling the litter has gone up."
"It costs about three times as much to fertilize this year than last year," David Hilsman, a Morgan County hay producer, said.
After seeding and fertilizing, hay doesn't just grow into those perfectly circular bales. Instead, it takes a variety of machinery as well as many gallons of fuel to gather the hay. The process involves cutting, fluffing, raking, baling and hauling.
After cutting the hay, it must be fluffed so that it dries and raked into rows so that the hay can be baled. The entire process involves fueling machinery including mowers, tractors, balers and hauling equipment.
"The cutter tractor takes 40 gallons at $4 per gallon, it costs $160 [to fill up]," Hilsman said. "I fill up about every day."
Based on the amount it takes to fill up his cutter tractor, Hilsman estimates it costs $80 in fuel to fluff, about $40 to rake and about $80 to bale, a minimum cost of $360 in fuel and not including the cost to upkeep the machinery.
"On turning it and raking it, we use a small tractor," Hilsman said. "Cutting it and baling it takes a good bit of fuel."
The multi-step process of harvesting hay and the fact that steps in the process, like fluffing, have to be repeated tends to be where the majority of fuel is used.
"We have four or five tractors we use in the hay fields," Hardy said. "They're fairly new, so they're supposed to be fuel-efficient. As much as we use them, fuel is still high."
Hay can be hauled to store once its moisture level reaches 14.5 percent with the temperature inside the bale being no more than 100 degrees, according to Hardy.
"It has to be put up right," Hardy said. "You set hay out without cover in the wintertime, you lose about 30 percent [of its nutrients]. Put it in the barn, you keep 30 percent."
Another cost of harvesting hay comes with hauling it, whether it be to storage or to a consumer.
"Hauling it gets expensive," Hilsman said.
Further, just as the cost of fertilizer, the cost of machinery is also being affected by the weak dollar in that other countries are starting to produce a demand for machinery previously demanded for use by American farmers. There is currently a waiting list of six to eight months on John Deere-brand balers (and an over-a-year waiting list on combines), according to Smith.
The majority of machinery used by hay producers runs on diesel. Diesel fuel lasts longer and, until over a year ago, diesel cost less than gasoline.
"Some farmers are starting to buy gas trucks again because because they can't afford the cost of diesel," Smith said.
Whether indirectly, through the cost of seed and fertilizer, or directly, or directly, through the cost associated with machinery, the cost of fuel is driving hay producers, locally and nationally, into the ground.
Hay! How You Doin'?
According to Georgia Farm Gate reports, Morgan County produced three tons per acre at $60 a ton for a total value of $2.7 million in 2005. In 2006, the county produced two tons per acre at $70 a ton for a total value of $2.1 million. And, in 2007, the county produced 1.5 tons per acre at $75 a ton for a total value of almost $1.7 million.
While price per ton has increased, hay tonnage per acre in Morgan County has been in steady decline for the past three years, so much so that total value has also decreased.
To make matters worse, last year's drought wrecked havoc on the crop.
Ellen Warren, owner of Full Circle Farm, was used to purchasing 150 round bales and 150 square bales for her cows.
"Last year was scarce," Ellen Warren, of Full Circle Farm in Madison, said. "I only bought about 50 round bales because that's all they could sell me. They said, ' We don't have enough to feed our own cows, let alone anyone else's.' I had to move my cows because there was no grass, no hay."
The majority of Morgan County hay producers grow the crop to feed their own livestock. When last year's drought hit, they felt double the effect, with no hay to feed their livestock and no extra to sell.
"I had to buy every bit of my hay last year," Hardy said.
"In our case, last year we bought a lot hay because we couldn't make it," Hilsman said. "With the fuel cost last year, it cost a lot to get it in here."
Sunny and in the low- to mid-90s makes for ideal hay weather, according to Hardy. The weekly rain has also helped crop production.
"So far production's been good," Smith said. "This is one of the best springs we've had in four years because we've had rain on a weekly basis. This year looks good for Ryegrass and Fescue, but the jury's still out on Bermuda Grass."
Currently, Smith estimates hay costs to be between $100 and $140 a ton (equivalent to about two round bales), depending on hauling distance, compared to between $50 and $75 a ton just a few years ago.
"It costs $120 per ton just for it to come out even for the producer," Smith said.
Ray McLean, of Sowhatchet Mule Farm in Madison, saw the uglier side of the cost of the crop recently when he realized the hay he purchased was stolen from his barn. McLean believes that the previous scarcity of hay combined with its current cost made the cause for the crime.
"They came six different times," McLean said. "The last time it was 80 something bales. Other times it was anything from 20 something [bales] to 40 something [bales] and, one time, 50 [bales]. With a lot of it, I'd just gone and stacked it in the barn...I guess they saw us gone and took a chance on it pretty quick."
While still feeling the effects of last year, scarcity doesn't look to be a problem for this hay season.
Hilsman was able to gather five bales per acre this year, while only being able to come up with one bale per acre last year. Still, with the cost of production, he estimates prices to stay the same.
"We bought a lot from south Georgia [last year]," Hilsman said. "We paid $55 to $60 a bale. This year, after the fertilizer and fuel, we're probably going to have about the same amount as we bought last year."
"Last year, I know people who were charging $55 per round bale," Warren said, remembering the situation surrounding last year's hay crop. "You would have to have gold-plated cattle for the cost of a round bale."
At the current time, hay producers seem to be in agreement that the business of hay production hinges precariously on high fuel costs.
"Fuel cost is the number one thing killing us right now," Hardy said. "Everything is tied to fuel cost."
"Until the fuel situation changes, I don't think the cost of hay is going to go down because of production costs," Smith said.
And, until relief from the cost of fuel comes, hay producers will cling to every straw.