The hay is green and leafy, testing 28-30% crude protein and 66-68% TDN. It's so high in quality that Jim Ochterski, a Cornell University ag economic development specialist, calls it “Godiva hay.”

“The nutrient analysis is such that cattle are going to eat it like candy,” says Ochterski.

He's referring to alfalfa from small-batch tests of a new hay drying method developed by Top-Quality Hay Processors, LLC (TQHP), Geneva, NY. The method features a natural-gas-powered oven that is expected to turn freshly cut forage into dry hay in about four hours.

The startup company plans to buy standing alfalfa from growers, mow it with a modified windrower that conveys it into dump wagons or directly into trucks and haul the green forage to a nearby plant for drying and baling. The 40-lb bales are expected to bring premium prices in the high-performance horse and dairy markets.

Drying was set to begin in mid-August in a 200 × 600' plant at Romulus, NY, a former military warehouse with room for up to six 384'-long drying lines. Each drying line will include a “detangler” — a series of conveyors that will lay the green alfalfa in a uniform mat for efficient drying — and a 184.5'-long dryer.

Jeff Warren, a TQHP partner, says the plant will operate around the clock, drying hay from farms up to 35 miles away. Starting next year, timothy will be dried, too, and customers will be able to buy alfalfa, timothy or blends of the two hays.

More high-value products eventually will be manufactured, Warren says. They include pet food made from leaves lost during drying, bottled wa-ter made of moisture removed from hay and maybe a high-protein drink. He says a Cornell scientist will work on a process for removing alfalfa protein and stabilizing it in a beverage.

Concrete has already been poured for a second TQHP plant in an adjacent county, and a third one, owned by hay growers, is on the drawing board. More farmer-owned facilities will be built in New York and other states where rain interferes with hay production, Warren predicts.

“This process should be wherever hay is grown from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, all the way out to Oregon, where they have the same weather problems as we have,” he says.

The patent-pending drying process hasn't been operated on a commercial scale, but Warren says all steps have been thoroughly tested. Details on the dryer are confidential, but he says its temperature will be carefully controlled to provide optimal drying without burning the hay.

He's confident it will dry hay quickly and economically, even at today's fuel prices.

Cornell's Ochterski, who works in Ontario County where the second drying plant will be built, is only slightly less optimistic.

“Preliminary tests on small-scale batches have been extremely promising, and I, along with a lot of farmers in the area, expect that it will work,” he says.

While Cornell forage specialists are familiar with TQHP and its plans, Ochterski says no one has looked closely at the dryer and how it will function.

“That's the part right now that is speculative,” he says. “We know what's going in the front end, we know what we want to have coming out the back end, and will this ma-chine produce that? We're pretty sure it will, but pretty sure isn't 100%.”

Ochterski calls the TQHP partners “some of the better brains that we have in the community.” The group includes Warren and five businessmen: John Davie, Michael Kunes, Mark Wickham, Chuck Long and Neil Simmons. Warren grew hay commercially for two years; none of the others has experience with hay.

A former financial planner, Warren moved his family to New York from Florida to lead a less-stressful life. Before long, he bought 405 acres and started growing alfalfa — his first foray into farming.

“Every time hay was cut, it started to rain,” he recalls. “By watching the process and seeing what was happening, we determined if we could take the weather out of the picture, then we could hay profitably.”

His initial plan was to field-dry the hay for a few hours, finishing the process indoors. But that would require more equipment and wouldn't completely remove the weather risk. So he concluded that the best strategy was to cut and gather the crop in one field pass, not letting it touch the ground.

Total indoor drying will eliminate harvest losses, so the hay will be uniformly high in quality, Warren points out. It also will permit earlier spring and later fall harvesting, resulting in more cuttings, he adds.

“So we'll be able to get 100% of the hay that grows. With corn and soybeans going at the prices they're going at, it's even more important that the farmer gets 100% of what grows.”

The dryer and other equipment were developed by Warren, Kunes and Davie. Warren sold his farmland and now devotes full time to the project, Kunes owns a metal fabricating company and Davie grows cash crops but not hay. By the time the plant opens, they and their partners will have spent three years and about $3.5 million, with some of the money coming from state economic development grants.

State Sen. Michael Nozzolio helped secure part of that funding, and Warren says most of New York's state and federal legislators have sent representatives to visit the proposed plant. “Everybody has been impressed with the whole process and the concept and what they've seen,” he says.

“It's potentially very big, and time will answer the questions that we don't quite have answered yet,” adds Ochterski. “It's an exciting and nerve-wracking time.”

For more on TQHP, visit www.tqhp.com.