John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 11-26-12 |

John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 11-26-12

The other day, I was with several ranchers on a fence job, and we took a break to toss the hog about the weather, the markets and the usual commentary on the world.

One fellow, who has a few cows and horses, commented that the price of hay had gotten rather high, which caused general agreement. One stockman went so far as to say, “I hate to see the price of alfalfa get so high.”

This observation didn’t ride very well with one of the men who grows quite a bit of alfalfa. He shuffled a little dirt with his boot tip, winced and waited for a pause to give his side of the story:

“OK, you hate to see the price of hay get so high? Well, I agree it’s high. So what you need to do, my friend, to get cheap hay, is very simple. All you have to do is go out and buy some good ground, tear it out of whatever that good ground is in, and plant a crop of alfalfa.

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“Good ground isn’t very high, only about $4,000 an acre. And be sure to get good water rights with that ground, which shouldn’t be too expensive, either. Only about $3,000 an acre foot, and you’ll need about three acre feet to the acre to grow good alfalfa.

“Then you’ll need some cheap equipment to do the seedbed work the first year, which you won’t need the next year, because the next year, you’ll need a swather, a rake, a tedder, a baler and a stacker. And a trailer helps for hauling. None of that will cost very much. I guess a $150,000 should cover it, if you can find good used equipment, and have plenty of time to work on it.

“Oh, and I forgot to mention: be prepared the first year, because you’ll have quite a little expense for the seedbed preparation, seed, fertilizer, irrigation and so forth, and you won’t harvest a big crop that first year. No, it takes a year or so for the alfalfa to reach its peak production, so you need to be patient on that part of it.

“Of course, sometimes alfalfa winter kills, but that doesn’t cost much to take care of. Just start all over again with the seedbed and planting, and more seed, which is really cheap, at about $4 a pound, or so.

“When you get all of these cheap expenses out of the way, growing alfalfa is like having a license to print money. Except that at least one cutting gets rained on, and then buyers don’t care for it too much. They’ll walk around your stacks, criticizing your hay because of the weather, something totally out of your control. But you can take it. You don’t mind much.

“On some occasions, you get so much rain that the hay turns black and is hard to sell to anyone, so it’s a good idea to have a few rangy steers around who aren’t too particular about what they eat, to clean up the hay you can’t sell. Luckily, steers are cheap as dirt.

“So, you see how easy it is to combat the high price of hay?”

The rancher who’d said he hated to see hay prices get so high had to smile. “Basically, you’re telling me that to get cheap hay, all I have to do is grow my own.”

“Yes sir, that’s all you have to do.” ❖

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