When Jeremy Sweeten starts grazing dairy heifers on 25-30 acres of pasture this spring, it'll be his first experience with a farming enterprise other than commercial hay production.
Most likely, though, cash-crop hay will always be the cornerstone of this young Peru, IN, farmer's operation. He's been growing hay since high school, and has been doing it fulltime since graduating from college five years ago. He says hay cash flows better than corn and soybeans on his rolling land, and he's never had a problem selling all his production at good prices.
“Don't get me wrong; it's not been all rosy,” says Sweeten. “There have been a lot of sleepless nights wondering how I'm going to pay for things, but it continues to work itself out.”
Though his parents didn't farm, Sweeten was raised in the country and knew early on that was what he wanted to do. Then, at 17, he took 12 acres of his dad's land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, seeded alfalfa and started selling hay.
His penchant for hay production grew during his years at Purdue University. After earning a master's degree in agronomy in 2003, he began to expand his hay business. He now has 125 acres of alfalfa, grass and alfalfa-grass mixtures on mostly rented land; about all he can handle doing most of the work himself.
Sweeten recently bought 38 acres, enabling him to start grazing. He also custom mows 600 acres for a nearby dairy, a part of his business he hopes to expand.
He sells hay in small square and big round bales he makes himself, and in custom-baled big squares. Clients include horse owners, beef producers, dairies and the Indianapolis Zoo.
Putting up hay with the quality that customers demand has never been a problem, he says. He's sold all his hay by March 1 every year, and his 2007 crop was sold out by December. He normally sets prices before harvest and doesn't change them as the market changes.
“I'll raise my price if inputs like fuel and fertilizer increase, but I try to keep my profit margin about the same. It makes better customer relations.”
The heifer enterprise will let him grow his business without adding a lot of labor, fuel and other costs. He'll get bred dairy heifers from a custom heifer operation and raise them until they're ready to go back to the dairies. They'll also be a more-profitable outlet for rained-on hay, he says.
The heifers will be fed some sorghum-sudangrass, too, a crop he grew for the first time last year. He no-till planted it after wheat on neighboring farms, getting the land essentially free for controlling weeds. He harvested two cuttings as bale silage using a newly purchased wrapper and found strong demand for the good-quality forage.
“I think it's going to be a nice little niche market to get into, and with that bale wrapper I can get the first and last cuttings off even if the weather is kind of nasty,” he says.