With dairy farms just about everywhere facing financial difficulties, many commercial alfalfa hay growers are finding markets for their product dwindling. Jason Turner, New Mexico State University horse specialist, offers a potential solution for some growers: Refocus your marketing efforts to expand sales to customers in the horse industry.

As much as anything, Turner says, selling to the horse market offers a way to diversify. “Diversification is the cornerstone many multi-national companies, such as General Electric, use as a way to weather tough economic times. Why wouldn’t it work in the hay business?”

Turner acknowledges that some alfalfa growers have shied away from selling to the horse industry for a variety of reasons. “Some growers simply like the idea of selling a whole season’s worth of hay to a single dairy on a contract basis because it doesn’t require a lot of marketing. Also, horse owners have a reputation for being picky or hard to deal with. I won’t say this doesn’t happen. But most horse owners simply want a quality product for the price they pay with no hidden surprises.”

A grower’s existing line of equipment will likely play a big role in determining his or her prospects for selling to horse owners. Turner points out that a lot of horse owners have five or fewer animals and aren’t set up for large square bale packages favored by large commercial dairies. A grower set up to make and deliver small squares might be in a position to capitalize. “We all realize small square bale harvesting requires more time, effort and labor,” says Turner. “But while there can be some additional headaches associated with harvesting and delivering small squares, there’s also an opportunity to capture a premium by incorporating these costs into the price you charge for your product.”

Turner also notes that many horse owners don’t have the resources to haul large quantities of small bales, don’t know how to contact commercial hay haulers and don’t have storage capacity for semi loads of hay. One solution, he says, might be to advertise price discounts on bulk deliveries. “This may be the incentive horse people need to get together to split a load.”

In shaping a marketing plan, Turner advises emphasizing convenience and customer service. “Be sure to spell out your return policy (e.g., weedy bales, moldy bales, etc.) and any guarantees you are willing to make so both parties know what is and is not returnable,” he says.

To get the word out to potential horse-owner customers, Turner recommends an advertising strategy that mixes old and new approaches. Placing ads in the local “trader” paper or posting your business cards on bulletin boards at feed stores or livestock auctions can be worthwhile. But you might also want to use the Internet and possibly set up your own Web site, use online commercial classifieds like Craig’s List or contact hay listing sites maintained by university extension, a state hay association or the state ag department.

“Attending local horse shows or other functions in your market area – where you provide a sample bale along with your contact information to prospective clients – may be another good way to get your foot in the door with the horse-owning public,” says Turner.

Growers set up only to handle large square bales might still be able to find a niche in the horse industry by supplying large horse breeding farms or boarding stables, racetracks and training facilities and the retailers that supply them. “If you haven’t done so already, this may be the season that you investigate supplying hay to the local feed store,” says Turner. He notes that most of the large racehorse breeding farms in New Mexico have contact information listed on the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association home page. Links to state racetracks can be found there also.

To contact Turner, call 575-646-1242 or email Jlturner@nmsu.edu.

Editor's Note: Is the horse market a viable option in your neck of the woods? Give us your thoughts in the article-commenting area below.