Getting enough quality hay can send ranchers long distances | TheFencePost.com

Getting enough quality hay can send ranchers long distances

In order to determine nutrients and feed value, the hay producer can take a sample with a forage probe and submit to a forage testing lab. The local extension office may own a probe producers can borrow. Glenn Shewmaker

While cows probably don't wonder where their next meal will come from, it is a topic that consumes many ranchers' thoughts year-round.

Neal and Amanda Sorenson of Powder River Ranch, at Spotted Horse, Wyo., purchase hay most years.

"We try to buy good quality hay that doesn't have weeds, since we don't want to bring in weeds to our ranch," Neal said. "Sometimes in the past when it's been really dry and we need to buy a lot of hay, we've purchased malt barley straw to help stretch our forage at less cost. It's softer than wheat straw, the cows eat it better, and it's usually completely weed-free because there can't be any weeds in beer barley. There is usually a little grain in it, so it's good feed, at about half the price of hay."

Ranchers can use straw to stretch the hay dollar, by feeding with good alfalfa as a protein supplement.

"We are set up to feed round bales, but we can also feed square bales if that's what we end up buying," Neal said, adding that he likes to buy from the same source year after year. They often source hay from irrigation pivots in southeastern Wyoming.

"We are in a narrow band of drought right now; there has been rain to the north and also south of us," Neal said. "Where we are getting our hay, to the north, they have an abundance of hay so we don't have to go so far to get some—which makes it more affordable. We tried to put up a little hay here this year, but it's really dry." At a fourth of a ton per acre, it may not be economical to put it up. Plus the quality is not very good, so they are having some trucked in right now, he said.

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"We like to know the quality, and usually have the hay tested," he said, adding that the hay grower generally handles the testing to determine relative feed value, protein and more.

Trucking

"Trucking is a big part of buying hay, and sometimes may cost as much as the hay itself. They usually charge by the mile, and it's usually something over $5 per mile," Neal said. "Last year we got a trailer with a pup behind it—as much hay as they could haul in one load, and we paid $5.75 per loaded mile, for about 300 miles. Hauling hay can be a challenge for truckers, because they often get picked on at the port of entry and weigh stations. Everything has to be in perfect order, and it's a tough job."

Freight costs vary with diesel costs, weather and how far they have to go.

Kyle Hamilton has a trucking business in northern Wyoming, TK Freight, and hauls a lot of hay. He says that even when diesel costs go down, the price for engine oil, tires and parts rarely decrease.

"We have to make money to stay in business. I figure that if a trucker is making 30 percent of what his fuel costs, that's a fair rate. Every customer is different in how they want the price figured. Some want to know what it will be — hay and trucking — delivered to their house, per ton. So you figure up your miles, what you'll charge per mile, and also call the guy who's selling the hay — to ask him if he's sure the bales weigh what he thinks they do," he said.

"Some guys want to know what you charge per mile and sometimes on really short hauls this has to be figured differently, like if I'm hauling it out of the pasture into the stack corral. I do a lot of that, and might be moving it only four miles. That won't work at mileage rate. I have moved a lot of hay to the stack corral, and figure it by the hour and then convert that back into what it would be per bale—or so many dollars per bale. It has to make me a decent wage. A person's truck is worth a certain amount per hour, even if it's just sitting there running, drinking fuel," Hamilton explained.

There's a lot of figuring involved. "We charge $6 per mile (truck and train) for a 30-ton load. If we get over 30 tons, we have to charge an extra 25 cents per mile. Unless a person has hauled hay, they have no idea how hard it pulls with that much weight on, and that much wind resistance sticking up in the air that high," Hamilton said. "Hay and trucking was very expensive in the drought of 2012. Hay was scarce and costing $150 a ton, and fuel was more than $4 a gallon. As an example, my dad and I hauled 30 loads from Great Falls, Mont., to Wright, Wyo., and it was so far, and so expensive, that when the rancher wrote each of us a $2,000 check for one load of hay, $1,000 of each check was just for the fuel."

Finding hay

"The best situation is to find it as close as possible, so it doesn't have to be hauled very far," Neal said. "If possible, go and look at it yourself. Then figure out what it will cost for freight. There is an irrigated valley very close to us, and it would be handy to buy hay from there, but I know it's full of leafy spurge. So we don't buy any hay out of that valley — even though it's much closer than other hay for sale."

If a person doesn't have a convenient source, there are websites and hay auctions where you can check current hay prices, and get contact information for people selling hay.

"The truckers are a good source of information if you are trying to find hay, and word of mouth. Truckers really have their finger on the pulse of what's happening because they are hauling it everywhere — and they can see what the hay quality/condition is and know how it was grown," Neal said.

Hamilton said there are a lot of hay brokers and some video hay auctions.

"There are many irrigated hay farms near Torrington and Riverton, Wyo. A lot of that hay gets shipped south to Colorado to dairies or to a hay auction down there where the dairies buy it," he said.

"There's also a hay auction in Miles City, Mont., and one near Priest River, S.D. They might be representative of the price of hay in their area, but they are a long way from here and the price might be different. I get a lot of phone calls in May and June when people are wondering what hay will cost this year, and I have to tell them I don't know. That's too early to tell. I can tell them what old hay might cost, if I call around and check with a few people, but until the new hay is in the bale you don't know the quality or what it will cost. It might be garbage if it got rained on," he said.

"The nice thing about people in ag is that they are very helpful. They can be out in the field cutting or baling and you can just stop along the road and walk out there and talk to them. In 2012, that's what I had to do, and again this year," Hamilton said. "It's a waiting game right now to see how much old hay people will let go. When it has to be hauled a long distance, people can't afford new hay (and pay the freight, too). But for beef cows the year-old hay is fine. When I'm driving around looking at hay, I carry sacks, and grab handfuls of hay for samples so I can accurately represent that hay."

"When the phone rings I start making a list, and the people who call first get their hay first. If it won't work, I know some other truckers they can call. Even if you can't haul for someone you can still help them out," Hamilton said.

"After 2012 we met some really nice people, and also some not-so-good people, but you go back to the people who treated you well. You know which ones to avoid and which ones to keep dealing with. This year I made a bunch of calls to hay farmers that we hauled from that year. We did a good job, and they did a good job, so we remember each other. You both know it's going to work."

Moving hay across state lines

There are often a lot of hoops to jump through when moving hay from one state to another.

"The DOT regulations are terrible because each state is different," Hamilton said.

Other state laws should be looked at whe moving hay interstate or intrastate. North Dakota state law, for example, prohibits the transportation of material that contains noxious weeds.

"This job for me has become a lot easier and I am more relaxed and less worried about things — and I don't let the DOT get under my skin so much since I've come to know the Lord." Hamilton said. "He's with me and I put it all on Him and that has made it 100 percent easier." ❖

Packaging hay

For efficient trucking, bales must be proper size and shape. “When we hauled hay out of North Dakota those farmers were making their round bales 6 feet tall,” Hamilton said. “The loads would be over height yet the bales weren’t very heavy. Those bales were big but dry and loose. We didn’t have enough tonnage on the load, yet the bales were so tall we had trouble getting under bridges and underpasses. We had to space them out more on the trailer, which made even less weight we were hauling. I bought a drop-deck trailer just so I could move that hay and have the loads lower.”

“This is another reason I go look at hay, to see not only the quality but how big the bales are and what they are wrapped with. If they are string wrapped, I need to know if it’s sisal or actual twine. The sisal sometimes just falls apart. If its net wrap we have to know how much net wrap they put on, and whether we can handle these bales once or twice and have them still hold together,” says Hamilton. He can haul square bales but is set up for hauling round bales.

He also wants to see the hay first, before he hauls it, to know whether the bales are stacked up or sitting in rows. “If they are in a stack they tend to no longer be round; they get oblong or triangle-shaped and water gets in between them. If the farmer says they are in a stack, I almost always go look at it to make sure those bales will haul, and to be able to tell my customers if there is spoilage. If they have a bale processor they can feed those bales to cows, but it won’t be calf hay. So it’s important to know what the customer wants and how it will be fed,” he says.

“If they are going to feed every bale with a hydro-bed, we need to find some hay that hasn’t been in a stack. The stacked bales are all shapes and sizes and that makes it more difficult to feed as well as to haul,” he says.