When dairy producers can't find enough hay of consistently high quality, their nutritionists are challenged to formulate rations that deliver high milk production.

Inconsistent hay quality is an ongoing problem that's worsening as herd sizes increase, says Dennis Gehler, forage product manager for Land O'Lakes Seeds.

“The nutritionist attempts to correct deficiencies and inconsistencies on the forage side of the equation using the grain side of the equation,” says Gehler.

Hay Markets International (HMI) will begin to address the issue. Under the new Land O'Lakes project, spearheaded by Gehler, the co-op will assist growers in the production and marketing of hay. Co-op agronomists will help growers produce more high-quality hay, then will ensure that it's properly sampled, tested and delivered to dairy producers.

First, agronomists at local Land O'Lakes and CHS co-ops will help commercial hay growers reduce variability in what they harvest. The agronomists already work with growers on seed selection, fertility, etc., but not on cutting management and other factors that directly impact quality.

The next step is for the local co-ops to become “aggregators,” says Gehler. They'll assemble large quantities of hay from area growers and sell it to dairymen, much like they buy and sell grain now. Or they may function as brokers, bringing buyers and sellers together and collecting a fee.

“We're not totally sure; it's kind of a work in progress,” says Gehler.

Either way, HMI will enable dairy producers to buy all their hay from a single source. It should appeal to growers, too, says Gehler. Many want only to produce hay and would rather not deal directly with dairy producers.

Some growers, however, may do more than produce hay for HMI.

“Some existing larger hay producers who are in the marketing business today certainly could become aggregators,” says Gehler. “Or some existing brokers. I don't see any reason why we can't work together.”

Proper hay sampling and reliable laboratory testing are critical components in the quest to reduce variability. Roger Elliott, former dairy farmer from Evansville, MN, has been hired to teach proper sampling procedures to personnel at local co-ops. A 30-question test developed at the University of California will also be used.

XS, Inc., which operates XSAg.com, a trading exchange for ag chemicals, will handle financial settlement and fulfillment for the transactions.

Land O'Lakes has local co-ops in every state, but HMI's primary emphasis will be east of the Rocky Mountains. The word “International” is in the title because Canadian co-ops will sell hay to U.S. buyers.

The project will hit full stride this summer, when agronomists begin working with growers on quality-related practices.

“Our objective is to provide value to all the stakeholders,” says Gehler. “It's to provide consistent hay to the dairies, based on their specifications; it's to help hay growers understand how to produce it; and it's to have reliable testing and sampling protocols so what we put on a truck is what they ordered.”

For more information, call Elliott at 877-497-2436. ext. 589, or log on to haymarkets.com.