The Newman family of Monteview, ID, added more than 800 acres of irrigated alfalfa this year, returning to full production of the crop that has been their No. 1 moneymaker for decades.

Wheat and barley are also grown at L. Newman Farms, but grains can’t match the long-term profitability of high-quality hay, so they’re used largely as rotation crops.

“We’ve always felt that we can make more dollars per acre by being hay farmers,” says Lane Newman, a partner with his brother, Lewis, and their dad, LaVar.

But going into 2011, barley prices looked strong, and several 125-acre, pivot-irrigated alfalfa fields were at the end of their useful lives. So the Newmans removed 13 and replaced only two-thirds of them.

“We had never taken out that much hay at one time,” Lewis Newman recalls. “Hay has treated us so well that, if a stand looks good, we squeeze another year out of it, and it caught up to us.”

Last year’s high hay prices made alfalfa the top crop again, so they replenished their acreage, seeding five fields last fall and two this spring. Now they have 4,000-plus acres of alfalfa, utilizing a large arsenal of equipment and an ample amount of family labor to harvest high-quality hay. The hay is sold mostly in large quantities to southern Idaho dairies, often with some lower-quality hay included in the deal.

“Sometimes we hold our dairy hay hostage and try to push as much feeder hay as possible with the good stuff,” Lane explains. “We usually wait until we get a whole crop so we know how much of it is dairy quality, how much is feeder hay and how much is mixer hay in between. Then we’re able to best determine how to package it together.”

The operation, started small in the 1960s, today totals 7,600 crop acres. The soil in that part of eastern Idaho isn’t quite right for potatoes, but the warm days and cool nights are ideal for irrigated alfalfa production. Rain seldom ruins a crop, but brief showers sometimes discolor the hay and slow drying, which normally takes a week. To raise their odds of avoiding that problem, the Newmans harvest fast, cutting four or five fields at a time with four windrowers, and baling it all in one night with seven
4 x 4’ balers.

Having extra equipment also pays off if the harvest gets delayed.

“When you’re able to go again, you can get caught back up to greener hay faster,” he says. “You don’t stay behind.”

The equipment is operated by family members and a few seasonal employees. One of LaVar’s grown grandsons is part of the operation, and Lewis and Lane’s seven sons and daughters also help. The nighttime baling crew consists mostly of those teenagers. They’re expected to work almost as hard as their fathers did at their age.

“My childhood was spent on a New Holland self-propelled two-string baler,” Lane quips.

He gives his 80-year-old dad much of the credit for the operation’s success.

“Lewis and I are fortunate, because our father always believed in agriculture,” he says. “There have been years when nothing looked bright. But even in those years he wasn’t discouraged. Without his vision and wanting to keep with it, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow as a farm.”