Shipping potential customers a full-bale sample of hay is a great way to convince them that you deliver a high-quality product, says David Brenner of Orchard Park, NY.

Brenner and his wife, Theresa, put up timothy hay in small square bales weighing 40-50 lbs on 120 acres at their North Collins, NY, farm. In recent years, most of their market has been made up of horse owners on the East Coast. In 2011, though, they started getting more inquiries from buyers in Southwestern states affected by the drought.

“Some of the people we heard from weren’t very familiar with timothy hay,” says Brenner. “We figured rather than just tell them about it on the phone, we could go one step better and mail them an entire bale.”

In the past, the Brenners would occasionally send a few flakes to customers requesting samples. That worked fine in terms of giving them an idea about the hay’s color, stemminess, etc. “But we figured with the full bale they could also see that we put up a nice, tight bale, not a puffy bale that could fall apart during shipping or handling.”

Depending on the destination, the shipping costs around $30/bale. In most cases, the potential buyer picks up the tab.

They also started getting hay quality-tested last year. “Before, we really didn’t see much need to do any testing,” Brenner says. “But because we’re shipping farther now, we felt like we might need a little more protection. We didn’t want to ship a load of hay somewhere only to have the buyers say that what we shipped wasn’t what they thought they were going to be getting. The test results more or less speak for themselves.”

For the analyses, they pulled samples from about 10-12 bales in each field during each of two cuttings. The lab they worked with in Ithaca, NY, analyzed the hay for relative feed value, crude protein, fiber, micronutrients and ash content. The cost was around $25 per analysis. They sent roughly a dozen samples off to the lab over the course of the growing season.

“So it’s not that big of an investment to get some very good information about the hay,” Brenner says. “It’s a way to differentiate quality hay from hay that isn’t good quality.”

The quality testing has been a hit with customers. “It gives them confidence about what they’re buying,” he says. “Also, a lot of times when you’re dealing with horse owners, you’ll find that people will buy a full load even though they don’t need that much hay. Their idea is to resell whatever they don’t use themselves. Having the test results can make it easier for them to do that.”

They require upfront payment from all of their customers before shipping hay, and prefer wire transfers, cashier’s checks and money orders. “We’ll take personal checks, too. But our policy is that the check has to clear the bank before the hay goes on the truck.”

Some potential customers balk at the payment terms. “We had one customer tell us that she was concerned about sending a check to someone she had never met,” Brenner says. “We told her that we could appreciate that, but our policy is our policy. We wished her luck and told her we hoped she would find what she wanted.”

They charged $4.50-5/bale plus shipping and were completely sold out of hay by late October. “Some years, we might have a full barn in the late fall/early winter,” says Brenner. “This year, though, we went into the winter with the barn empty.”

To contact the Brenners, call 716-662-0309 or email brennerfarms@cs.com.