When Bob Walton first thought about selling to a niche market, he considered packaging small bales of hay in boxes for horse owners. Instead, he ended up selling bagged straw bales for use as dog bedding.
Last year, this Rosebush, MI, hay grower and quarterhorse breeder sold six semi loads of his Straw Dogs, 12- to 15-lb bales that he makes by rebaling conventional small square bales. He and his wife, Susie, do the rebaling in their indoor horse arena in winter, using the same baler that originally baled the straw in their wheat fields.
They stack the bagged bales on pallets, then a family friend helps Walton wrap the pallet loads in stretch-wrap plastic. A local pet supply distributor picks them up a truckload at a time and delivers them to over 400 stores in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
He got the idea several years ago while discussing his boxed hay idea with a horse-hay client who has dogs.
“He said: ‘You ought to do that with straw because dog owners buy it by the bale and only need half a bale’,” Walton recalls.
He bought some straw, printed labels off his computer and began making small bales. He stretch-wrapped every bale at first, attaching handles made from packaging tape. After a year, he switched to clear plastic bags purchased from a local packaging company. Each bag is closed with a cable tie, and the gathered top serves as a handle.
“The bags are a lot less time-consuming than stretch-wrap,” says Walton. “We stuff the label inside.”
He did the marketing himself the first few years, selling them at the local elevator and in nearby pet supply stores. He and Susie also had them in their booth at the Michigan Horse Council's annual Horse Expo, where they promote their farm and horses. A woman who has horses and also works at the pet supply distributor saw them, and that company started buying the bales about a year later.
Walton gets $3.33/bale, picked up at the farm. His costs include more than 20¢ for the bag, 8¢ for the tie and about 25¢ for the label. Twine and labor costs are additional.
Five labels are used, each featuring a photo of a set of Walton grandchildren and their dog. The labels also state that the straw is home-grown in Michigan.
Walton figures the attractive labels and clean straw are key selling tools, along with bales that break apart in definitive flakes. That trait is attributed to his Hesston baler.
“I've found that the Hesston center-line, for our hay marketing and also for this straw, makes a clean flake; there's no carryover between flakes,” he says. “They just throw it in the doghouse and it basically spreads itself.”
Rabbit owners buy the bales, too, and so does a woman who raises ducks in her basement, says Walton.
The husband-wife team does most of the rebaling. Walton removes the twines from existing bales and forks the straw into the baler, which ties every 12-15”.
“We idle the baler back; I found that I don't need to run it wide open,” he reports.
Susie bags and piles the finished minibales as they leave the baler, then, after a certain number have been made, they shut off the tractor and take time to tie the bags and stack the bales on pallets.
Walton doesn't worry about somebody else stealing his market. “People say they'd never do it; it's too much work,” he says.
But he doesn't see much opportunity to grow the business, either. His distributor only covers the three states, plus hauling the light bales long distances is expensive.
“With the shipping costs, it's not feasible to expand the market,” he says. “We'd have to do some different packaging.”