The challenges of making good hay are many.
It requires season-long hour-by-hour weather watching, extensive time management skills, the equivalent of a PhD in engineering required to make even routine in-field repairs, and the patience under pressure of the most skilled surgeons when making said repairs with a rain cloud looming. Those making hay also need to know a good bit about chemistry, biology, agronomy, physics, and have the people skills of a top waiter at a white tablecloth restaurant to deal with an often fickle customer base trying to feed livestock worth more than most homes.
At any rate, it ain’t easy making hay, but somebody has to do it. One of those somebodys is Mike Lutmer from Warren County. Mike and his brother Chris have been working with hay since they were young.
“Currently, we have around 200 acres of hay. We also do some custom work. A majority of our hay customers have been with us for over 15 years. Warren County has over 6,000 horses, so we keep hay in the rotation due to the high demand. Also, not every field is suitable for row crops, so the demand for hay works to our advantage,” Mike Lutmer said. “We learned to bale hay from our grandfather when we were little kids. One of my fondest memories is tumbling the hay bales down the hay stack in Grandpa’s barn. Sometimes we tumbled with the bales.”
The number of hay acres on the farm are subject to changes in the farm economy and the general economy.
“When the housing market declined, the demand for straw decreased significantly. With the economic downturn, many horse owners also felt the same pain. Some of those individuals were no longer able to afford good quality hay,” he said. “People weren’t buying houses and they weren’t buying horses.”
Most of the hay grown on the farm is a blend of alfalfa and orchardgrass, with timothy mixed in some fields.
“We have about 50 acres that are mixed grass — fescue, orchardgrass, timothy and red clover that is used to make cow feed. There is nothing too hot, but it has a good protein and feed value,” Lutmer said. “The rotation depends — usually it will be corn-beans for several years and then we’ll put wheat in. When we take off the wheat, we’ll let it sit fallow for a few weeks. Then we will prepare to begin for our fall seeding of hay. This happens mid-August through the first week of September, weather permitting. Depending on what we want, we’ll do a 65% 35% alfalfa-orchardgrass mix. We will also grow straight timothy and a timothy alfalfa mix, depending on what our customers are requesting. Fifteen years ago, the timothy alfalfa mix was a hot commodity. Since then, the alfalfa-orchard grass mix has gotten more popular. Typically, we leave the stand in rotation for five years, but we have gone seven or eight years in the past. If it is getting thin at the four-year mark and we are getting weed pressure, we will take the first cutting and no-till soybeans in.
“We no longer make round bales because a cow deserves a square meal. We run a New Holland big square baler that produces three-by-three-by-eight bales, and we also run a couple New Holland 575 small square balers with accumulators behind them. For our mower conditioner, we run a center pivot MacDon disc mower. We have two different rakes. We run a Krone twin rotor rake and a H&S wheel rake, depending on the conditions.”
Maintaining a consistently high quality product is vitally important. Pests are not often a major issue with quality hay production.
“We really don’t have many issues. If we do, we spray Warrior for leaf hopper,” Lutmer said. “You have to catch leaf hopper in the larvae stage and spray it, otherwise they will eat it and be gone. Since we have the mixed forage, we do not have a big issue with that or alfalfa weevil. When scouting fields, if we happen to see an issue we will make that field a priority. It will be cut first to try and control the pests.”
Soil fertility and hay moisture levels are much more important for quality.
“Every few years we will pull soil samples and add lime, N, P or K, depending on what the soil sample shows. We’ll add it after the first cutting, weather permitting,” Lutmer said. “We make sure the hay is baled at the best moisture to avoid problems with mold, that is one of the most important things for quality. We also try to keep good, clean fields. Especially around the outside, we’ll spot spray or mow if we have something like a bad patch of thistles. We have looked into it, but we have not used any Roundup Ready alfalfa yet. Then, depending on the moisture levels on our big squares, we’ll use CropSaver Hay Preservative from New Holland if it is anything over 18%. We use that as little a possible, but if the rain is coming and the hay is borderline, it will be applied to help keep it greener and keep it from molding. It also helps the palatability.”
If quality suffers, so do customer relationships. Lutmer goes to great lengths to address any problems.
“Dealing with horses is quite different than dealing with cattle. Horses do not have the ability to process moldy hay like a cow does. Therefore, horse owners have different concerns when it comes to the hay for their horses. We do everything we can to provide a high quality product and keep an open line of communication to know what they are looking for,” he said. “In the fall, we ask our customers how many bales they will need. That way, we can plan to have enough bales to take care of our current clients.”
Most of the hay is then delivered.
“We deliver over 90% of our hay. Sometimes it is a delicate balancing act, juggling all the things we have going on,” he said. “We are fortunate to have long term customers who work with us on delivery scheduling.”
Hay remains an important part of the Lutmer Farms business, along with row-crop production and custom trucking. The hay certainly offers plenty of work and numerous challenges, but it also helps diversify income sources and provide many benefits to the other parts of the operation.
“There is a yield benefit with the hay in rotation. Some years it is more beneficial than others. On average, we have seen a 10% yield bump with beans after first cutting hay. After years of being in alfalfa, the corn uptakes the nitrogen helping increase the yield,” Lutmer said. “Water quality and erosion are very important aspects of our farm. Hay production in certain fields enables us to keep our waterways clean and viable. The more soil health you have the better off you are.”
Hay production often requires near super-human abilities, but people like Lutmer welcome the challenge, at least some days.
“Some days, baling hay can be extremely rewarding. Then there are days when baling hay can test your resilience,” he said. “It may not be for everyone, but it’s something we thoroughly enjoy. The best scent of summer is a trailer load of freshly baled hay. Knowing that this trailer load of good quality hay is going to a satisfied customer, makes all the long hours worthwhile. We are always looking for that perfect bale.”