Small company topples giants. For the past two decades it has been the classic story of David and Goliath. Emerald Acres, a small, family run cubing operation in New Richmond, IN, has competed head-to-head with larger, better financed operations for the lucrative feed store market.
One by one, like Goliath, the larger cubers have lurched, teetered and toppled. Only Emerald Acres, in the heart of corn and bean country, remains standing, unscathed.
How has this boot-strap operation managed to survive - marketing its alfalfa cubes in 32 states while more than one multimillion-dollar operation is now just a memory?
For the owners, Don and Scott Miles, the answer is obvious. It's the quality.
"Our competitors were giving away everything from knives to trucks to get stores to take their cubes," says Scott Miles. "In the end it didn't do them a bit of good."
Don and Scott are mystified by the idea that large companies can move in, spend millions of dollars on equipment and marketing gimmicks and ignore the production side of the process.
"You can't make a quality cube out of inferior alfalfa," says Scott.
It's a philosophy the father and son have had since Emerald Acres' conception 22 years ago. Alfalfa growers themselves, they were well aware of the risks involved in starting a cubing operation in Indiana.
"Everyone said it was impossible," recalls Don. "John Deere went so far as to announce it was not selling its cubing machines on this side of the Mississippi be-cause they wouldn't work properly in our humidity."
Both Don and Scott believed that the doubters were looking at the wrong end of the mule. Undeterred by Deere's warnings, the Mileses felt that the quality of the alfalfa going into the cuber - not the cuber itself - determined the end product.
"When it comes to quality alfalfa cubes, the growers are the key," says Don. "They have to be willing to grow the alfalfa just the way you need it."
He points out that, when the hay is grown, cut and harvested to cubing specifications, its quality is the same as that grown west of the Mississippi.
"Our growers seed, fertilize, cut and do everything else to our specifications," says Don. "If I say we need to spray for weevil or potato leafhopper, it's done - no questions asked."
After working with the same eight growers for over 20 years, there's very little disagreement on how to grow cubing alfalfa, he says.
Growers are loyal because Emerald Acres pays a fair price for the hay and assumes financial responsibility for its decisions, according to Don. "I pick the day we're going to mow. If I get us in some weather trouble, I buy the hay at the same price regardless."
Unlike many other hay processors, Emerald does not charge for drying and uses a simple one-to-one calculation for determining dry weight. Another benefit to the growers is that they average an extra ton to the acre producing for cubes as opposed to conventional drying and baling.
Don still spends most of his time on the move, scouting and checking the crops. Timely cuttings and pest control are essential to creating a consistently marketable product, he says. During the growing season he can still be found checking plants for buds - one of their cutting indicators - or sweeping a field with his insect net to get a count on weevils or leafhoppers.
Keith Johnson, a Purdue University extension forage specialist who has worked with the Mileses, agrees that Emerald's precise cutting schedule impacts overall cube quality. He notes that, in a region where three cuttings are the norm, Emerald's growers get four.
Earlier cutting has less impact on total yield than on quality, says Johnson. Delaying the first cutting by 10 days may actually increase yield, but the quality definitely suffers.
"Even one week can dramatically lower the protein content and increase the fiber content that, in turn, reduces digestibility," he says.
Ed Ballard, a University of Illinois extension educator, says insect damage has a similar impact on alfalfa quality.
"Insects will reduce leaf area and suck moisture out of the plant," he says. "When you lose leaf area you reduce the quality and promote more dust in the product."
Most of Emerald's product is sold to horse owners who are acutely aware of the impact a dusty product can have on their animals' health. So the Mileses see dust control as synonymous with quality control.
"These animals are big pets to their owners," says Jeff Volenec, Purdue forage agronomist. "They are very keen on buying only the best quality."
In fact, Volenec has relatives in Wisconsin who feed Emerald Acres cubes to their horses. He sees nothing strange about people living in the middle of alfalfa country feeding their horses alfalfa cubes produced in Indiana.
"All they want is consistently good quality and Emerald Acres gives it to them year after year," says Volenec.