What's bad news for dairymen producing organic milk is good for organic hay growers.
Demand is outstripping supply. Organic dairy producers who can't grow all their organic feed are paying a minimum 10-15% premium for organic hay. And some organic hay growers are getting 40-50% premiums.
The reason? In part, it's because the market for organic soybeans has skyrocketed. Organic beans are bringing more than $20/bu for human food in Japan, says Jim Wedeberg, a dairyman from Gays Mills, WI.
Growers like Wedeberg have been making do with the splits, or poorer-quality organic soybeans, for livestock feed.
"We'd been living on the splits, and now the Japanese are taking those, too," Wedeberg says.
He recently contracted with a neighbor to grow soybeans for him. He also looks for organically grown alternative oilseeds, like linseed. And, like other organic milk producers, he is making maximum use of the protein in alfalfa.
"Quality forage is critical to us," he says.
The good news for them: Their milk has been in high demand since it became legal to sell milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone (also called BST).
"Our sales of organic milk began to grow, and they've been growing ever since," says Allen Moody, fieldman for a LaFarge, WI, cooperative called Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP).
"It was like opening the flood gates," Moody adds.
Milk producers make up a big part of the co-op's membership. Ninety-eight dairymen, located in clusters on the East and West Coasts, as well as in the Upper Midwest, milk a total of about 5,000 cows.
They get just over $17 a hundredweight for their milk, plus quality premiums.
Most grow much of their own forage, but there's a growing market for organic hay, silage, grain and protein meals.
The CROPP co-op helps its milk producers locate feed. Organic growers advertise in its newsletter, the Organic Trader. In a recent issue, there were 37 ads for organic feed grains; 19 for organic forage.
Edward and Beverly Baum of Shiocton, WI, sell organic mixed grasses and red clover through such ads.
They expect to get a 40-50% premium for organic hay over the conventional market. Last year was the first year the Baums sold hay. Buyers arranged their own hauling, and some hay moved 100 miles, says Edward Baum.
They also grow 65 acres of sweet corn, snap beans and peas. Because organic farmers depend on legumes like alfalfa and clover for nitrogen production and soil organic matter, hay goes hand in hand with the vegetables.
"We use a four-year rotation," Baum reports.
Clover or alfalfa is plowed down for sweet corn. The following year, peas are doublecropped with snap beans.
The Baum land is seeded the next spring for two years of hay. Clover is grown on low ground. Better-drained land is planted to alfalfa, usually with some grass added, since mixed stands are less susceptible to attack by alfalfa weevils.
They find growing organic hay isn't all that risky. The worst that could happen: They might have to sell the hay conventionally. It has already paid its way as an important part of their rotation, and neither yields nor production costs are significantly different, Baum says.