George Eckler's clients have differing views on what type of hay is best for their horses, and he tries to please them all.
“We grow everything from straight grass hay to straight alfalfa to anything in between,” says Eckler, forage and livestock manager at Richwood Farm, Walton, KY.
Richwood grows and sells five types of hay and hay mixtures for area hay customers: orchardgrass and timothy, orchardgrass and alfalfa, orchardgrass and red clover, straight grass and straight alfalfa. All are offered in both round and square bales.
It's no accident that Richwood Farm has become known throughout the region as the “Home Depot of hay.”
With 1,350 acres of rolling fields — much of it seeded to forage mixtures — Richwood managers take pride in managing the growth of the hay and putting it up right.
“Our goal is to grow the best hay,” states Paul Donaldson, equine manager. “We want to be No. 1.”
Donaldson and Eckler co-manage the farm for owner George Budig. The farm maintains a Simmental-Angus cow herd, annually backgrounds 400 feeder calves to about 800 lbs and maintains 26 thoroughbred horses as breeding stock.
The hay business blends in with the farm's feed needs and also generates added revenue on its own. According to Donaldson, there's a big hay market in the area.
“Two racetracks are located within 25 miles of the farm, plus a number of folks have pleasure horses and riding stables,” he says. “We're fortunate that our name has gotten out there for growing good hay.”
Both farm managers give a lot of credit to orchardgrass for improving their hay program.
“Orchardgrass is perfect to blend with alfalfa, and when you add it to other grasses, it improves the feed value,” says Eckler.
The farm has received a number of awards in statewide Kentucky hay competitions. A recent entry of alfalfa and orchardgrass scored 145 in relative feed value (RFV); one lot of straight alfalfa scored RFV 188.
To maintain this level of quality, Eckler and Donaldson work closely with University of Kentucky forage experts. The goal is to monitor field trials and stay up to date with characteristics of new varieties, such as disease and drought resistance and grazing tolerance.
They select varieties based on results compiled by the university's trials. Recently they have been planting Benchmark and Benchmark Plus orchardgrass; both have consistently been at the top of the trial data list.
According to Eckler, his orchardgrass selections have worked well in grass-legume mixtures and he reports excellent stem rust resistance along with improved grazing tolerance.
“The one thing we really like about the orchardgrass is that it matures early so we can get a good first cut of haylage for livestock feed,” says Eckler.
Other benefits include good regrowth, longevity, disease tolerance and excellent cool-weather performance.
Eckler says that, when a grass performs well in cool weather, the benefit goes beyond making good hay. It also adds up to better feeder calf gains.
“Our average rate of gain on beef calves is about 2 lbs a day,” he says. “But on cool-season grasses, those calves gain up to 3 lbs a day. That's a significant profit difference right there. That's why we like to graze orchardgrass.”
He and Donaldson practice rotational grazing and work to constantly improve pastures and hay ground through overseeding the right mix in each field. Horse paddocks are mowed closely and also are overseeded every year.
“When all is said and done, we use a lot of trial and error,” concludes Eckler. “Then we make our evaluations and refine the process. But it all starts with buying good certified seed and fertilizing based on soil samples.”