From now on, Bob Hilger's 4 × 4 × 8' baler will spend more time in the shed. That's because this David City, NE, commercial grower doesn't just bale hay anymore. He also puts up several thousand tons of alfalfa haylage.
Hilger made the change to accommodate the forage needs of a 1,950-cow dairy built last year in nearby Shelby. He was instrumental in getting the new operation, Double Dutch Dairy, to relocate to Nebraska from Kansas. Hilger helped the owner locate a building site and secure feed sources.
First, though, he sold the dairyman on the benefits of moving to the cornhusker state.
“Nebraska offers what big family-owned dairies need — a good supply of water, an excellent highway system and ample supplies of high-quality alfalfa,” Hilger says.
“We still have wide-open spaces where they can build and not have neighbors too close by. But at the same time, we have communities that are close enough to provide all the services that people need for their families.”
Hilger farms 800 acres of alfalfa with his wife, Sue; son, Matt and his wife, Nissa; and 15-year-old daughter, Bethany.
With a new dairy in his neighborhood, Hilger has a long-term market for his alfalfa. Now he spends less time looking for new markets and lining up truckers for long-distance hauling, and more time managing his crop.
This wasn't the first time Hilger made a major farming change. Until 1984, he grew corn. Then he enrolled in the government PIK program and started raising alfalfa. For about five years, he harvested 75- to 90-lb bales for dairy and horse customers in the Midwest. In the early 1990s he traded his small baler for one that makes large bales.
Hilger was happy to divert some of his production to haylage in 2000, even though it meant investing in a self-propelled forage harvester, two live-bottom trucks and a silage bagger.
“We fight the weather less when we're making haylage,” he says. “I like getting the hay off the field in one day as opposed to watching it lie there for 10 days. Plus, it's easier on the stand if you get it off before the regrowth starts. On the other hand, if we get behind and it gets too dry to chop, the baler comes out.”
The haylage gives Hilger a little more control over his schedule.
“For example, if there's a wedding in the family on a Saturday, we just don't cut any hay on Friday. But when the haylage is ready to bag, we better be ready to go. Some days it looks like a race around here.”
The dairy buys all of the high-quality alfalfa he can put up, whether it's haylage or big bales. He put up three cuttings as haylage and two as hay last summer. This year, he'll rent more land, hoping to get enough haylage for the dairy from the first two cuttings.
Hilger usually takes his first cutting in late May and tries to take later cuttings about 28 days apart.
“If everything goes well, that puts us on a schedule to get a big fifth cutting, which is usually made in October.”
When he's making haylage, he cuts in the evening. He rakes two windrows together the next morning while the dew's still on, then starts chopping a few hours later.
The Hilgers deliver a fresh load of haylage to the dairy each day and unload it in a commodity shed. Their long-term contract specifies that they deliver haylage with 40-60% moisture.
“Below 40% it gets dusty and the leaves start to crush. If it's much over 60%, the haylage is too juicy. I think 50-55% moisture is ideal,” says Hilger, who inoculates every ton as it's bagged.
With most of his production going to Double Dutch Dairy, Hilger doesn't have much dairy-quality hay to sell to his old customers.
“When the haylage is ready to bag, we better be ready to go. Some days it looks like a race around here.”
— Bob Hilger
If necessary, he refers them to other members of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (NAMA) when they call. NAMA members are also working together to supply the balance of the forage needs for Double Dutch Dairy.