Nebraska family targets the Florida horse hay market.

A touch of Nebraska Cornhusker fever — in the form of red and white twine — is showing up at Florida racetracks and horse stables this winter.

Using the signature colors of the University of Nebraska's highly rated football team is one of several ways Travis Edeal and his family are promoting their foray into the small bale business.

At a time when small bales are becoming almost obsolete, the Edeals traded in their 4 × 4 × 8' baler for two small ones.

“Our farm supports three families, so we needed to come up with a plan that would give us more income off of the same number of acres,” says Edeal. He farms near Overton, NE, with his wife, Nikki; parents, Brian and Teri; and brother Trent.

“By marketing small bales into niche markets, we're realizing more profit per ton vs. selling all big bales to Midwestern dairy farms. We've also noticed that we're harvesting more tons per acre with the small balers because the pickup heads are different and we travel at slower speeds.”

The Edeals wanted to diversify their 2,000-acre farming operation, which, in addition to 1,400 acres of alfalfa, includes custom grazing and feeding as well as several hundred acres of corn and soybeans. Besides small bales, the family makes round bales to sell to local feedlots and midsize (3 × 3 × 8') bales for the dairy market. Last year they sold hay to buyers in 30 states.

“Last summer we put up about 2,000 tons of dairy-quality hay in 3 × 3 × 8' bales and about 40,000 small bales,” says Edeal, who harvests four to five cuttings per year. “Diversity in bale sizes allows us more flexibility in our marketing process because we appeal to a wider range of clientele. Variety in our operation also helps keep things interesting for us.”

By having a list of diversified clients — feedlot operators, dairy producers and horse owners — the Edeals can match the varying quality of their hay to the needs of their customers. Third- and fourth-cutting hay, which usually has the highest relative feed values, is targeted to dairy producers. The second cutting is usually sold to horse interests.

“As long as the hay hasn't been rained on, the color's bright green and the feed value in it is right, we can sell our second-cutting hay into our niche markets,” says Edeal.

“Florida's not the only place to market small bales. There's also a strong demand in California, Texas, New York and several other states.”
— Travis Edeal

Of course, small bales take more time and labor than big ones. To meet that challenge, the Edeals bought a Bale Bandit. Pulled behind a baler, the machine makes 21-bale stacks. Two metal bands, with rounded edges that won't cut through twine, keep bales in a solid package that can be easily handled and transported.

“Since we started using the Bale Bandit, we've picked up some new wholesale customers who want to buy bales in packages,” says Edeal. “They're willing to pay about $10 more for each bundle vs. buying 21 loose bales.”

Some years, Trent Edeal packs his bags and heads to Florida in early November to help market the small bales. While some of the hay is wholesaled to feed stores, much is sold directly to horse and stable owners. Working with a friend and partner in the polo business, Trent sells hay out of vans in the West Palm Beach area.

“Within a 10-mile-square area in West Palm Beach, 20,000 horses are boarded from early November to late May,” explains Travis. “I know there's also a strong demand for small bales in California, Texas, New York and several other states. Florida's certainly not the only place to market them, but it just happens to be where we've gotten set up.”

The Edeals are confident that Trent's presence heightens sales because he's there to establish rapport with customers and assist them with questions or concerns they might have about feeding hay to their horses.

“In Florida, a lot of horse owners feed bales made from a mix of grasses and alfalfa,” says Edeal. “We're working to educate them about feeding more alfalfa by distributing a brochure that says, ‘Here's what you're getting and here's how to feed it.’”