Thinking outside the box has led Ken Ashby and his partner, Lonny Adams, to put alfalfa inside a box, creating a product they hope will make their fortunes.

By packaging 45- to 55-lb bales of quality alfalfa in neat cardboard containers, the men are offering horse owners a convenient, easy-to-handle product that doesn't leave a mess in their vehicles.

“If you sell alfalfa hay the way people normally do, it's just a bulk commodity. It's like selling a truckload of grain. If we put it in a box, it can have a brand name. That takes it from being a commodity to being a product,” says Ashby, whose company, CUMA (Certified Utah Medallion Alfalfa) Products, is based in Riverton, UT.

Eighty percent of the people who handle or own horses are women, he adds.

“If they go down to the feed store, usually a bale of hay will weigh 60-80 lbs. And it's messy at best. Boxed alfalfa is 100% usable; the leaves and fine stems will be at the bottom of the box and the horses can eat down to the box. It can be stored a long time and doesn't get moldy in a cardboard box.”

Boxed alfalfa also travels well in horse owners' SUVs or live-in trailers, Ashby says. “Some people call it SUV hay. And we use the saying, ‘If you like water in a bottle, you'll love hay in a box.’”

The hay is high-quality Utah alfalfa of the richest green color and sweetest smell — a product that Southeastern horse owners covet, Ashby says.

“We use the words ‘Pure Western Alfalfa’ as a big selling point because Western hay means something to them. In the Midwest and Southeast, everybody can raise alfalfa, but they can't get it cured and baled well where it rains so much. Our annual rainfall is 9", mostly in January and February. We can cut hay and get it sun-cured. These high-desert mountain valleys have hot days and cool nights — it's a great way to raise quality alfalfa.”

Although Ashby has grown alfalfa most of his adult life — his farms are now rented out — the boxed alfalfa is grown by Bailey Bros. Farms, Ephraim, UT, and is baled and boxed at the Bailey farm. A million-dollar machine can take a 1-ton square bale and slice, compact and tie it into 40 bales averaging 50 lbs. Those smaller bales are then hand-packaged into 15 × 15 × 22" cardboard boxes, awaiting shipment to horse owners in Florida and other Southeastern states. One baled alfalfa box sells for around $15, giving the product a value of about $600/ton.

A couple of local feed stores are currently selling Ashby's boxed hay. Some people even buy it to feed deer, he says.

“Our effort right now is in getting a distributor who can get the boxes to stores. I have to ship by the truckload; I can't ship just a box. I tried to ship a pallet or two and it cost me as much to ship 36 boxes as it would to send a whole truckload — 900 boxes.

“Shipping and distribution are challenges. I have been to a number of horse and livestock shows to get reactions from people; everybody just raved about it. But as much as the customer may want it, it's quite another thing to get into a marketing chain. We're working hard with a number of distributing companies, trying to get them interested.”

The opportunity is there, Ashby says. “There are 30 million tons of hay marketed in the U.S. through horses each year. So if we can impact even one-tenth of one percent of that market, we would be doing well.”

Once the boxed alfalfa is accepted by a distributor, he and Adams plan to also market TenderNibbles, a rabbit food made from the boxed alfalfa's leavings. About a pound of choice leaves and stems are hand-packed into plastic jars that will sell for $5 each.

“So if you want to look at value-added,” Ashby chuckles, “alfalfa selling for $5/lb, at 2,000 lbs/ton, makes $10,000/ton.

“What's keeping us from doing it is getting pet stores to say, ‘Yeah, that's something we want.’”

The boxed alfalfa would also appeal to owners of rabbits and gerbils, Ashby says. “A number of people who feed rabbits say this would be great to have. Instead of an open bale that makes a mess, it can be in a box, there won't be any waste, and it'll be protected from the weather.”

For more on CUMA Products, visit www.cumaproducts.com.