With hay prices down and forage quality lower due to poor curing conditions in many parts of the region this year, University of Georgia (UGA) Extension forage specialist Dennis Hancock was expecting entry numbers in the 2010 Southeast Hay Contest might drop off a little from previous years. Now it’s looking like that might not be the case after all.

He reports that, with roughly three weeks to go until the contest’s Sept. 30 entry deadline, more than 120 entries have already been submitted. “Last year, we had less than 100 entries at this point, and we ended up with 160 entries,” says Hancock. “Typically, most of the samples come in during the last month. I suspect we'll be close to, or over, 200 this year.”

Hancock notes that rules for the contest, now in its seventh year, have remained fairly constant. Growers from 13 Southeastern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia) are eligible to enter. Categories include warm-season perennial grass hay, perennial peanut or alfalfa hay, cool-season perennial grass hay, mixed annual grass or other hay, grass baleage and legume baleage. Category winners will be announced at the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, scheduled for Oct. 10-21 in Moultrie, GA.

There are no entry fees, but entrants pay a $15/sample lab analysis fee to the UGA Feed and Environmental Water Lab. “With the state budget crunch, we had to raise it this year ($12 last year),” says Hancock.

While it’s still a little early to predict entry numbers for specific categories, Hancock says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a significant increase in the grass and legume bale silage categories this year. “I am seeing a good many more individually wrapped and in-line wrapped silage bales throughout Georgia. We have been promoting this as an excellent tool for timely harvesting of high-quality forage and a method for reducing the forage losses associated with hay stored outside.”

Hancock also notes that the contest has truly developed into a regional event. “Over the years, we have sporadically received samples from places as far west as Texas and as far east and north as Kentucky and Virginia. I would like to receive samples from all the states in this region every year. I would ultimately like to see this contest grow to a point that it is just a rung under, in terms of notoriety, the World Forage Analysis Superbowl (held annually in conjunction with World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI).”

Increased understanding of how participating can benefit individual producers goes a long way in explaining the steady growth of the contest, Hancock says. “There’s definitely a marketing aspect to it. Producers who place first, second or third in a category get a lot of publicity in a variety of media on the local, regional and even national level.

“And everyone who participates gets a better understanding of how their attempts to harvest high-quality forages compare to their peers in the region. Other hay contests are either too small to really allow for these comparisons or they focus on forages produced in regions of the U.S. that are quite different than the relatively unique conditions and forage crops used in the Southeast.”

Looking to the future of the contest, Hancock points to lining up industry sponsors as a priority for organizers. “A major financial or equipment award would make this an even more rewarding experience for commercial hay producers in this part of the country,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of hay equipment sold in the Southeast. Since the contest is tied to the Sunbelt Ag Expo, where many producers make purchasing decisions, we think producers and industry partners would both benefit from such a sponsorship.”

Organizers are also considering developing a contest hay directory that would highlight the accomplishments of more of the top producers in each category. “It would really be nice to ensure that more of our highest-quality forage producers are given more notoriety. We may have to add an additional fee to do the directory, but I think there would be tremendous value in this concept.”

Learn more about the contest/get an entry form. Hancock can be contacted at 706-542-1529 or dhancock@uga.edu.