As the demand for organic dairy products grows, so does the demand for organic hay, says Lou Andersen, president of S&L Commodities, Fairfield, ID. He has been growing organic hay for 25 years and has been an organic hay buyer for 15 years. “Right now it is hard to find enough organic hay to meet demand,” Andersen states. “I feel there is a great opportunity for organic hay production, and organic dairies are pushing that demand.”
Andersen is quick to point out that organic hay production is not necessarily economically viable for everyone. He urges growers to examine their operations and production situations to evaluate if they could fit the organic profile. “In the farming business, it is important to maximize the advantages of what you have to work with,” he notes. In south-central Idaho, where he’s located, organic production helps high-altitude hay growers deal with challenges such a short growing season and limited moisture. “Our production potential, as far as tonnage, is not real high,” he explains. “However, we can produce quality hay that milks well. Even though we are a little farther from the dairies, the organic dairies are willing to pay the extra freight, and producing organic hay helped increase the prices we were getting by around $30/ton.”
He says one of the biggest misconceptions about organic hay is that quality doesn’t matter. “Some people assume that because the hay is organic, it should be worth twice as much as conventional hay. Usually, organic hay is only worth 10-20% more than conventional hay. And quality hay is just as important to an organic dairy producer as it would be to a conventional dairy producer.”
Andersen buys organic hay from 60-75 growers, primarily in Idaho, Utah and Colorado, and grows organic and non-organic alfalfa on about 4,000 acres of his own. Although he emphasizes that he isn’t about to tell anyone how to grow hay, he does want growers to be aware that it takes time to transition fields into certified organic hay production. “You can basically transition a herd of dairy cows over to producing organic milk in around 12 months,” he says. “But you can transition milk cows a lot quicker than you can transition crop ground. If you have been producing hay commercially and using commercial fertilizers or sprays, it takes around three years to transition that ground to organic production.”
Andersen says consumer demand for organic dairy products has been running about 20% higher than the supply. “As of last May, the common understanding was that it would take around 25,000 additional organically certified cows per year just to keep up with the increase in demand for organic dairy products. Think about that. It would take a lot of organic feed to keep up with feeding those 25,000 organically certified cows, in addition to the cows that are already there. So there are going to be some opportunities; it is just a matter of people identifying whether it is an opportunity for them or not.”
Andersen will be speak about marketing organic hay during the Midwest Hay Business Conference & Expo, March 13-14 at the KCI Expo Center in Kansas City, MO. Biotech traits in alfalfa, financial planning, marketing to horse owners and alfalfa production solutions are among the other scheduled topics. Sponsored by Hay & Forage Grower, the conference will feature a hay-industry-specific trade show giving growers opportunities to see the latest in forage equipment and technology.