Paul Meyer's love and knowledge of the hay business go way beyond the field.
This outgoing, articulate hay grower from West Point, NE, has helped lead and even create organizations that in turn have provided him with sound management practices and additional hay marketing business.
“It's important to be involved,” says the tall, confident man who's not afraid to speak his mind or listen to others' opinions. “Mixing with people helps keep your mind sharp and gives you less time to worry about your own problems.”
Years ago, he served as president of the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC), which has a diverse membership of growers, educators and industry representatives. He remains very active in the group.
“I like bringing a producer perspective to it. I've tried some of the practices that researchers report at the meetings. And really, that's what learning how to put hay up is all about — being willing to try something different.”
For example, since the late 1990s, he's been cutting his alfalfa in the afternoon after USDA researchers learned that sugar, starch and carbohydrate levels increase as the day progresses.
“That's one of those management strategies that just makes good sense to me,” says Meyer. “I think it adds about 10 points of RFV to the hay.”
The Nebraskan also likes afternoon cutting because that's when the dew is gone. “By cutting in the heat of the day, it wilts much more quickly. That saves a day.”
He takes at least four cuttings a year on 350-400 acres of alfalfa that rotate with 230 corn and soybean acres and is satisfied if his hay tests in the 175- to 185-RFV range. “Fifteen years ago, my goal was 200, but today's larger dairy operations prefer hay that's slightly lower in RFV.
“I was able to get started in farming by growing and selling hay,” he recalls. He prefers hay over corn and soybeans and, in fact, hires a neighbor to plant and harvest the row crops. Another neighbor does his windrowing and Meyer does the rest alone.
“I can have a lot of control over my own destiny in the hay business because I can set my prices based on the quality I'm able to achieve. You can mess up a corn crop if you don't pay attention, but you can really mess up a hay crop if you don't pay attention. Plus, I can have a lot more interaction with people selling hay vs. corn and beans and I like that.”
Meyer was one of a handful of hay growers who founded the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (NAMA) nearly 20 years ago. Those individuals, who were having coffee during a breakout session at a National Hay Association (NHA) conference, talked about the benefits of forming a state hay group that combined the best elements of NHA and AFGC.
“We each threw in $100 as seed money, had several brainstorming meetings, and it grew from there,” recalls Meyer. “Some growers kept talking about why the new group wouldn't work, but I preferred to focus on why it would work.”
He was elected NAMA's first president and served as its executive secretary until the late 1990s. “We live in a ‘me' generation, but there are benefits to joining together. If I don't have hay to sell to a potential customer, I'll call one of the other NAMA members; being a member has also helped me pool enough hay for large orders.”
From humble beginnings and about 30 members, NAMA now boasts a membership of over 140 growers, full-time staff, a successful Web site and a visible presence at hay shows across the country.
“I don't doubt that it's the strongest state hay organization in the country,” he says.
Meyer's also a member the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center's stakeholder committee, which meets regularly and sets research goals for the center. It's made up of producers and industry representatives.
Networking at industry events throughout the years has helped him build a loyal following of repeat customers in several states, most notably Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin. “One of my best customers is a dairyman in Ohio whose dad bought hay from me for several years.”
This year, he's had a lot of calls from buyers in Texas scrambling to find hay after the 2005 drought. “All of this hay I've been sending to Texas is a result of people I got acquainted with through AFGC. That's part of what getting involved in your trade organizations is all about — just making yourself known.”
Meyer is also involved on the local level; he will soon complete his term as president of West Point's Chamber of Commerce.
“I love the rural community around eastern Nebraska, and if you're going to be a citizen of an area and want to keep it progressive, you have to get involved. Every time you hear about an area that's struggling, it's because the people are sitting back and thinking that somebody else is going to do the work.”