Commercial hay growers have long held that it’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to interest one- or two-horse owners in large square hay bales. But times are changing, says Doug Mensing, who grows alfalfa and alfalfa-grass mixed hay on 500 acres near Menomonie, WI.
After a decade of making small square bales for horse customers in nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul, Mensing bought his first large square baler about six years ago. He saw it as a way to increase sales to local dairies. Today, dairies make up about 80% of his business. Horse owners account for most of the rest, but he also makes large round bales for local beef operations and his own cow-calf herd.
While most horse owners still prefer small squares, several have made the switch to large squares in recent years.
“It’s really about educating people on the economic advantages of the large squares,” says Mensing. “We spend a fair amount of time explaining that (large bales are) cheaper on a per-ton basis because there’s a lot less labor involved on our end.”
When a small-bale customer does show interest, Mensing takes a bigger bale on a delivery run. “We tell them to give it a try.”
The sales pitch goes more smoothly when the customer already has a small-horsepower tractor and front-end loader or other handling equipment, Mensing notes. For customers without necessary equipment, he offers to bring his skid steer, adding $25 to his delivery charge.
“We’re basically just trying to cover our time and labor,” he says.
Storage availability should be considered before determining whether large bales are a good fit.
“At one place, you might have a building with a 7’-wide door, so you can’t get in with an 8’ bale on the skid steer. At the next place, they’ll be storing hay in a 5’-wide alleyway in an old two-story barn. The nice thing about these large square balers is that it’s easy to change the settings and custom-make bales in lengths that will fit the situation. It gives us a lot of flexibility.”
Jamey Styles, Coal Hill, AR, has also had success marketing large square bales to horse owners.
Styles puts up bermudagrass hay on 800 acres and was one of the first in his area to switch to large square bales several years ago. “Labor was the big consideration at the time,” says the hay grower, who sells most of his hay in Arkansas and neighboring states, but has also sold to customers as far away as Colorado and Virginia.
“If you’re loading up a semi-trailer with small squares, you need two or three people to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time. With large squares, one person can handle the loading on his own.”
Initially, some of Styles’ customers were skeptical. “A few told us they’d never be interested … probably because they thought we were talking about 1,000-plus-pound bales of alfalfa like you’d see on a large dairy. Our bales weigh somewhere around 750 lbs. It doesn’t take that big of a tractor to move them.”
Like Mensing, Styles has customers sample the product. “We’d take along a bale and just give it to them. We’d tell them that, if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t owe us anything for it. Once they saw how the flakes come off, they’d be interested. The fact that the large squares are a little cheaper usually helped seal the deal.”
For recreational horse owners, large square bales probably make the most sense in “controlled feeding situations,” says University of Minnesota Extension equine specialist Krishona Martinson. “If you’re just feeding one or two animals a limited amount of feed at any given time, it’s pretty convenient to peel off a flake from a large square bale.”
Yet horse owners should mull over options carefully before committing to large squares, she advises.
“You absolutely have to have some place to store them inside. If you’re not doing some kind of controlled feeding, you’ll need to have a way to move the bales from where they’re stored to the feeding area. And, as with large round bales, you’ll want to invest in some kind of feeder to reduce waste.”