Moving heavily into commercial hay production instead of corn and soybeans looks like a mistake today, Sherman Schueler admits. But he’s convinced that prices of the other crops will drop sharply within two or three years, and high-quality hay will still bring good money.

“Hay can’t compete with $6 corn,” says Schueler, of Willmar, MN. “But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that before 2016 we’re going to see a lot of $3 corn, and hay competes very well with $3 corn.”

He and his brother, Kevin, sold their dairy cows in June 2011 and the last of their youngstock in April to become full-time cash croppers. They like to grow and harvest hay, and are confident they can cash in on knowledge gained while growing forages for their own herd.

“We know the value of quality forages and we know how to produce them,” says Schueler.

They seeded 200 acres of new alfalfa this spring and plan to add more next year, bringing the total to 400-plus acres, about all the two brothers can handle. When they finish remodeling their freestall barn, they’ll be able to store 3,000 3 x 3 x 8’ bales, about half of their expected production. The rest of their 800 tillable acres are in corn and soybeans, planted and harvested by a custom-farming neighbor.

One thing Schueler learned while dairying is that alfalfa-grass mixes are better for cows than straight alfalfa. He says the grass promotes a better rumen mat, which in turn improves herd health.

“When we started feeding mixtures a few years ago, herd health improved first followed by increased production and cows stayed in the herd longer.”

In addition, alfalfa-grass mixes yield about 20% better than pure alfalfa in a four-year stand, university research has shown. So this year’s new seedings are mostly that – 17 lbs of alfalfa plus 5 lbs of grass per acre. Tall fescue is the primary grass because it has better season-long production than other species they’ve tried.

One 40-acre field was seeded to Roundup Ready alfalfa for clients who want pure alfalfa. They’ll track the costs and returns from that field and a new 40-acre alfalfa-grass field to see which is more profitable over four years. Roundup was applied to the Roundup Ready field once during establishment, but likely won’t be used again. A triticale-pea cover crop was used to control weeds in the conventional field.

“Triticale is very prolific, and we found it to be a much better cover crop from a weed suppression standpoint than either oats or barley,” says Schueler.

The cover-crop hay is “an excellent dry-cow feed; and we really like it for bred heifers,” he adds. It also could be used instead of straw to add effective fiber to a high-energy ration.

“I don’t think it’s any better from a fiber standpoint. But it’s better because it’s 13-15% protein with a relative feed value (RFV) in the 90s, and straw nutrition is negligible.”

Harvested in early July, the triticale-pea mix yielded 3 tons/acre of hay vs. 1 ton/acre for the first cutting of Roundup Ready alfalfa. The alfalfa is worth more per ton – presently $1.10 per RFV point with an RFV of 180 vs. $1 per point for triticale-peas – but first-cutting income favored the mixture.

With no cover-crop competition, the Roundup Ready field’s second cutting got a slight head start, and both fields are weed-free, Schueler reports. They were seeded earlier than usual, so with sufficient rainfall both fields will yield two more cuttings. He expects to take three cuttings from new direct-seeded fields in normal years, but sometimes only gets one cutting following a cover-crop harvest.

The triticale-pea mixture field-dries slowly, so they finished drying some of it in a Clim.Air.50 hay dryer (left) recently bought from Double D Supply, Sikeston, MO. Powered by propane, it dries 36 bales at a time in two drying modules. They’ll also use it to dry alfalfa-grass hay.

“The quicker you can get that crop off the field, the better your regrowth is, and the dryer will help us by a couple of days. To us, that’s another 5% increase in yield.”

Primarily, it’ll be used to remove the last few points of moisture during periods of high humidity and on the fourth cutting in September, when field-drying takes longer. They’ll dry hay from about 25% moisture to 13-15% and expect to dry three batches a day – all the hay from about 40 acres.

Managing the dryer successfully comes with a steep learning curve, Schueler reports. Controlling baler tension is key to successfully drying hay.

“As moisture content increases, baler tension must be reduced or bales will get packed too tight to allow air to pass through. When we get 36 bales with proper density, the dryer works beautifully. Proper management is more art than science.”

He’s still learning, but is confident the machine will “mitigate a lot of the weather problems that hay growers have struggled with all these years.

“We probably would not have gone into haying big time if we hadn’t been able to see our way to putting in a dryer and taking a little bit of weather risk out of the equation,” he adds.

They’ll be able to put up a higher percentage of their crop as dairy-quality hay, which Schueler says always brings around $150 a ton, even when milk prices are low. The corn and soybean markets are more volatile, and he thinks the current run of high prices is almost over. In the past, periods of high prices have always been followed by several years of low ones.

“I’ve been a student of marketing and market psychology for thirty-some years, and I don’t see any reason to believe that this time is different,” he says. “History just keeps repeating.”