Garland Frey grows most of his hay on land he doesn't own or rent, and gets up to $11 per 55- to 60-lb bale. Obviously, he's a savvy businessman.
But Frey also thinks outside the box when producing the type of product that brings high prices from horse owners.
He bales pure alfalfa and timothy and alfalfa mixed with orchardgrass on 200 acres on the outskirts of Lafayette, IN. He does most of the selling himself, but also works through brokers and hay auctions.
A licensed pilot, Frey regularly flies to Florida to drop a few bales off at feed stores there, just to give buyers an idea of what he produces. And he's not afraid to guarantee every bale he sells because he knows what he grows is top-notch.
“One week there was a 7,000-bale auction and I beat everyone by $2/bale. Not that I'm bragging, but before any auction I go to, I tell the auctioneer to announce that I guarantee my hay is weed- and mold-free. People who don't know how to buy hay buy from me because of that,” says Frey.
After his hay has sold, Frey isn't shy about introducing himself to the buyer. “Don't just drop the hay off at a hay sale,” he recommends. “Stay around — if you have the best hay, walk around and talk to people and watch who buys the hay. Talk to the hay brokers and other buyers.”
That may bring you additional sales — without having to pay a sales-barn percentage, he adds.
Frey doesn't need “fancy equipment” to harvest his crop. “We've got small tractors, a good rake and baler and a lot of common sense.” He also uses a sprayer and scouts for pests at least twice a week during the growing season.
When he establishes alfalfa, he plants it twice as heavy as most growers — 35-40 lbs/acre — to get fine-stemmed hay. “Keith Johnson (Purdue University forage specialist) gives me hell for planting it that thick. He says I'm causing more disease and every-thing else.
“You really have to watch it a lot more,” he admits. “But they want that little bitty fine stem,” Frey says of his buyers.
When baling, he watches moisture content using a baler-mounted tester.
“I take five moisture checks per bale, so I know I don't have any slugs in my bales. You want to start at 21% moisture and be done at 15%. When it gets down to 12%, the hay gets dusty.”
He quickly stacks bales on semi trailers and moves them to dark sheds. Dark sheds preserve moisture and color; so does keeping the sheds full, he says. Bales are stacked on the cut edge to enhance air movement.
He doesn't use a tedder unless necessary, and once tried propionic acid, but “the hay was like cardboard,” he says.
Yet he's not afraid try new things. “I'm checking out an orchardgrass that is sterile. If it is, it won't overtake the alfalfa. I'm starting a field of pure orchardgrass, too. A lot of my demand is for orchardgrass.”
He also makes use of Purdue University, which is “just up the road.”
“It's starting something that is really going to benefit me,” says Frey of Purdue's noxious weed-free program that it developed with the Indiana Crop Improvement Association. “They'll come out and check my hayfield and guarantee it's weed-free. I'll be able to take that hay to Florida and have a certificate that says it's weed-free. It's just a little notch on my belt that says I'm not a fly-by-nighter.”
Frey spends about as much time marketing his hay as growing it.
“You get to know hay brokers at sales, and if you've got good hay, they're buying. Then you ask, ‘Where are you delivering it?’ And you make them a deal. I've got one broker who takes care of one racetrack for me. I let him make a dollar a bale and I'll put it on a trailer and take it to him. I'm still getting more money and not having to handle the sale.”
Frey makes good use of his pilot's license, too. By keeping track of weather patterns for flying, he gets a good idea of what Mother Nature is likely to throw at him while he's haying. And he enjoys flying bales cross-country.
“I throw a few bales into that airplane and it only takes me three to four hours to get to Florida.” New business comes his way when out-of-state buyers see and touch what he can produce, he says.
He also enjoys trucking hay to Florida and backhauling fruit.
He wonders why more growers don't value their hay the way he does, working hard to market to customers who don't think twice about paying $10/bale for their $300,000-400,000 horses.
“Some guys are content with baling hay and taking $2 or $3. It doesn't cost any more to get a $10 bale,” he comments.
Frey, who's 65, would like to be a hay man into his 80s. Some of it depends on the recent surge in development near his farm.
Yet that, too, he's using to his advantage.
As developers wait to build homes or factories, the land has to be kept in good shape. Frey has convinced several area developers to let him farm their undeveloped land free of charge — with the understanding that the developers may need the land before he completes all of his cuttings.
They pay for the seed and he plants, fertilizes and harvests. He estimates that 90% of the land he works is owned by developers, companies or owners of large estates.