When Dustin Johnson started his commercial hay business as a teenager, he sold his product door-to-door from his pickup.
He doesn't have to do that anymore. Today the 24-year-old Frankfort, IN, grower harvests four cuttings from 120 acres, making large round and 60-lb small square bales. Nearly half goes to local horse owners, beef producers and dairies; the balance goes to equine customers in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Though he farms in the heart of corn and soybean country, he prefers alfalfa.
“I love growing it,” says Johnson. “When the weather's right, making hay is a lot of fun, and delivering a beautiful load of alfalfa hay to a satisfied customer is equally rewarding. My customers care about what their animals eat, and some of the biggest smiles I've seen are from horse owners with barns full of green hay.”
Talking to existing and potential customers is another enjoyable part of being in the hay business, he says. “I talk to everybody who calls, even if I'm sold out.”
It's also how he started accumulating his customer list: “An area on the north side of Indianapolis is known for its large number of horse owners,” he explains. “I loaded up my pickup on Sunday afternoons and drove around. When I saw a place with at least three horses, I stopped and talked to the owner.”
To build his market now, he advertises on a free USDA Web site and counts on word-of-mouth recommendations from existing customers.
Johnson started making hay in high school when he bought sheep for an FFA project.
“To keep my feeding costs down, I found a hayfield that was for rent just a few miles away and had it custom baled,” he recalls. “But I soon realized that it would be more profitable to get rid of the sheep and sell the hay to other livestock producers.”
Then he began renting small, rolling parcels of land that were less than ideal for row-crop production.
“I've got a few landlords with one or two horses and 12-15 acres of land each. That's a good opportunity for young people to find land to rent at reasonable rates without having to compete with corn and soybean growers.”
This year he grew alfalfa on 90 rented acres and another 30 he recently bought. To help with that purchase, he took advantage of a USDA program that makes low-interest loans to young farmers to buy long-term assets.
The young Hoosier is cautiously optimistic about the future of growing hay.
“My dairy customers are doing well and the equine industry is growing in popularity, especially in this area,” he says.
“And as this country looks more seriously at biofuels, I think hay growers will have a good opportunity to capitalize on their ability to capture carbon using perennial cropping systems. The conservation benefits of raising forages will create more opportunities, too.”