When Top Quality Hay Processors, LLC (TQHP) mowed, dried and baled five truckloads of fourth-cutting alfalfa on Oct. 29 and 30 last year, it probably was the only hay harvested that late in New York State.

Extending the growing season is one of the advantages of TQHP's new haying method, first reported in Hay & Forage Grower's August issue shortly before the company's Romulus, NY, processing plant began operating.

The method features a 184.5' radiant-heat oven that turns green forage into dry hay in about an hour.

The new company buys standing alfalfa from growers and mows it with a modified windrower that conveys it directly into dump wagons or trucks. It's then delivered to the plant for drying and baling. The entire process takes about four hours, says Jeff Warren, a TQHP partner.

“It's working beautifully,” says Warren. “The hay we're producing is beyond anybody's wildest expectations.”

He and his five partners, area businessmen with no previous haymaking experience, spent four years and $3.5 million developing the haying method. Startup had been expected in mid-August, but was delayed until September due to equipment difficulties, Warren reports.

“It's all new and prototype, and it gave us fits here and there,” he says. “A lot of it was getting the timing issues down.”

Proper timing is critical with a series of conveyors that lay the green alfalfa in a uniform mat for efficient drying. The conveyors all have to move at the proper speed to keep the forage flowing smoothly into the dryer, he explains.

A computer controller is in the final stage of installation to monitor and control heat and moisture sensors and electric eyes. Every aspect of the line will be controlled for perfect hay every time, says Warren.

“There are over 100 motors running the operation,” he says. “Thirty-six of them run fans and the rest run conveyors.”

Details on how the dryer works are confidential. But Warren says enough heat is applied to dry alfalfa stems and kill bacteria. The hay is dried way down, then moisture is added to bring the level back up to 10-11%. Immediately after drying, the hay is packaged in 40-lb bales or bagged for the small-animal market.

The 2008 harvest, which lasted into November, totaled several thousand bales of alfalfa and timothy hay, says Warren. Some hay was sold and the rest was put into storage to be used as samples for potential customers.

While dairy and high-performance horse interests are expected to be the primary clientele, another potential customer surfaced after the first Hay & Forage Grower story was published. Representatives of an international feed company visited TQHP twice this past fall.

“They flew out here because they read your article and were talking to us about producing their small-animal food,” Warren reports.

They were impressed with the soft, green, nutrient-rich hay, and so is Jim Ochterski. He's a Cornell University ag economic development specialist who has worked closely with TQHP. Ochterski and several Cornell colleagues visited the processing plant last October.

“I wouldn't say the hay is good; I would say the hay is incredible,” he says. “People are stunned when they see the quality of this hay. It smells like heaven, it's dust- and mold-free and the darkest green you can imagine.”

In fact, Ochterski fears that the hay's super-high quality may present marketing challenges.

“We need to communicate the advantages and disadvantages of this product,” he says. “We know it has many, many advantages. But it might be too easy for someone to overnourish their livestock. It isn't just high-quality hay; it's a slightly different product that I don't think has ever been produced consistently before.”

When the processing plant began operating, TQHP hired eight employees to work a single shift. Early on, the hay was always mowed, dried and baled on the same day. In warm weather, green alfalfa starts to heat if left in trucks more than six hours, says Warren.

But the before-mentioned five truckloads of late-October alfalfa, harvested in the midst of a long rainy period, were mowed one evening and processed the next day. One sunny day dried the fields enough to hold equipment, and rain was expected again the next morning. So the forage was loaded into dump wagons, then transferred to trucks that were parked in barns overnight.

“Because the temperature was 43° that night, we had hay sitting in trucks for 14 hours and there were no problems,” says Warren.

In 2009, the company expects to harvest at least 2,500 acres of alfalfa and about 2,000 acres of timothy. This winter, a second drying line will be added to the plant, a former military warehouse that will eventually have six lines. A second shift of employees will be hired this spring to allow the facility to operate around the clock six days a week from May to November.

Concrete has been poured for a second plant in an adjacent county, and TQHP expects to begin selling franchises to groups of growers who will build plants to process their own hay.

“Because this is such a success, we're getting inquiries from all over the country about franchises,” says Warren.

“All communities that have farmland should consider this,” he adds. “It'll change haying forever.” u Jeff Warren checks a computer controller that monitors the hay drying operation.