Steve and Scott Rice have been baling large squares since they started their commercial alfalfa haymaking business in the late 1990s. This year, though, the Rice brothers, Wilsonville, NE, have added small square bales to diversify their customer base.
With 900 irrigated and 250 dryland acres of their own alfalfa, they also put up another 250 acres of the crop on shares. Dairies east of the Colorado Rockies have been their primary market.
But the marketplace has changed, and the brothers realized they needed to change with it. “We’ve been hearing a lot of concerns from our dairy customers about how they’ve been struggling with low milk prices and high input costs,” says Steve. “And we’ve lost some customers in the past couple of years because they’ve switched to other feed sources due to high hay prices.“
“It’s not that we’re worried to the extent that we’re going away from the big bales or the dairy market entirely. But we’re thinking that expanding into the small squares now will give us a head start on getting into some new markets.”
The Rice brothers see retail feed stores, individual horse owners, zoos and smaller dairies as potential markets for the small bales. Diversifying could help them gain efficiencies for their three semitrailers, as well.
“The economics of long-distance trucking have changed in a variety of ways the last several years,” says Scott. “Ten years ago, we were running all the way to the East Coast. But the radius of where we ship has been shrinking. Freight rates have gone up, and it’s also getting tougher and tougher for us to line up backhauls. With the small squares, we think there might be some opportunities to develop a few routes where we deliver to several different customers on one trip.”
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To get the new venture up and running, they bought a small square baler, a bale packer and a used tractor. “We thought about buying bale-slicing equipment and going at some of these other markets that way,” says Scott. “But for the money, it looked like we could do small square bales a lot cheaper.”
The game plan for the first year is to start slow, devoting no more than 10-20% of their total production to small squares. “When we pull into a field, we might pull in with the three large square balers and the small square baler. After we bale up a load of small squares, we’ll shut down the baler and keep going with the large balers. It comes down to being as efficient as we can. With the large squares (3 x 4 x 8’), we can drop a ton a minute. With the small squares, we can do about a fourth of that.”
The brothers plan to introduce themselves into the small square market with several multi-day trips, meeting potential customers face to face. As members of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (NAMA), they’ll also use its services to let potential customers know about their new enterprise.
For more information, call Steve or Scott Rice at 308-695-4231 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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