With a little help from Hay & Forage Grower, Butch Cardinal and his family added nearly $40,000 to their commercial hay income last year.
“I read an article in the magazine about the growing demand for high-quality grass hay to feed expanding alpaca numbers and thought it might be a good way to increase our profitability,” recalls Cardinal. He operates Cardinal Brothers Hay Sales, Hugo, MN, with his brother, Jim, and nephews, Steven Benkler and Andrew Venzke.
The story, “Alpaca Opportunity,” was in the February 2006 issue. “At that time, we were marketing about 95% of our crop to horse owners, with the remainder going to feedlots,” says Cardinal.
He visited the Web site given in the article, www.alpacainfo.com, and it led him to other useful sites.
“I put a classified ad for our hay on www.alpacanation.com and the phone started ringing almost immediately,” says Cardinal.
The inquiries came from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania and as close as 20 miles down the road. The partners weren't interested in selling hay several states away, but were anxious to meet the local demand. So they shifted some of their sales from horses to alpacas.
“We get almost $40 more per ton for our hay from alpaca owners vs. horse owners,” he says. “If we can supply them with palatable, sweet-smelling, soft orchardgrass hay, they are willing to pay premium prices.”
In 2007, the family put up nearly 60,000 small square bales and 1,200 large rounds from more than 600 acres of owned and rented land. A majority of the acres are seeded to orchardgrass-timothy mixtures, with the rest in alfalfa-orchardgrass. The grass stands yield up to 4.2 tons/acre; alfalfa-grass fields average a ton per acre more.
The alfalfa-orchardgrass hay is marketed to horse and beef interests. The first cutting of orchardgrass-timothy is marketed as horse feed, and alpaca owners get the next two cuttings.
“Alpaca owners won't buy the first cutting because there's a fair bit of timothy in it and it's quite stemmy. But the next two cuttings have very little timothy in them because it grows so slowly during the summer's heat,” says Cardinal. “Also, the second and third cuttings of orchardgrass are pretty much all leaf.”
“They're very particular about the quality of hay they buy — even more so than horse owners. They want weed-free hay without any seed heads, which can stick to the animals' fiber, making it less valuable. If you give them what they want, they'll be satisfied, long-term customers and tell their friends.”
Cardinal says he and his partners have been paid for every bale they've sold to alpaca owners, all of which are within 90 miles of their farm. Most buy only 100-300 small square bales per year, but the biggest customer takes a semi load every month to feed his 500-head herd.
This year, Cardinal and his family will add 150 acres to their operation. Two-thirds will be planted to teff for horses; the rest to straight orchardgrass for the alpaca market.