Marketing mini-bales to stores is a lot different than selling normal-sized bales to farmers, says Melvin Youngberg.

“Learning as a farmer to deal as a wholesaler with retailers is a difficult thing,” says Youngberg, of Newell, SD.

Retailers are fussy, and often buy products months ahead of expected sales; wholesalers have to know their schedules. Wholesaling also means pounding the pavement to show your product to potential buyers.

“That's not what we farmers typically do,” says Youngberg. “So there's a learning curve involved. You have to be personable and sometimes persistent.”

He bales 600-700 tons of alfalfa, grass and oat hay annually, mostly in round bales for ranchers in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. He also makes “lady bales,” 40- to 50-lb, 28"-long square bales for the horse market.

Two years ago, while visiting family in Montana, he saw mini-bales of high-quality alfalfa selling for $5/lb in a pet-food store.

“So I decided I wanted to try it myself,” he recalls.

On the Internet, he found a Pennsylvania company that sells old New Holland Hayliner balers that have been modified to make 15- to 17-lb mini-bales. He bought one and had it shipped to his farm in fall 2005.

Initially, he thought the focus of his new enterprise would be hay: mini-bales of alfalfa and alfalfa-grass mixtures for the horse market. He sells the 8 × 11 × 22" bales for $2 apiece off the farm, and delivers them to farm supply stores where they bring $3/bale. For store sales, he stacks them on pallets and wraps each 36-bale stack with net-wrap to keep it intact.

“Those bales sell at a slower pace than I anticipated,” he reports, adding that he thinks the price is too high. But he can't lower it on his end, because his per-bale costs are high, largely because of the extra handling required.

He's currently targeting the decorative straw market, which seems to have more potential, in part because the bales bring a higher price. Each straw mini-bale is sold in a plastic bag with Youngberg's Horse Creek Hay Farm label. In December, he sold bales to churches for nativity scenes, and is dealing with a large food-store chain, which wants them for the 2007 Halloween-Thanksgiving season. The garden and flowerbed mulch market also has potential.

Youngberg recently learned that straw makes great bedding for dog kennels, so he's pursuing that market, too.

“I've got four or five leads that I'm working on,” he says. “And I'm starting to pound on pet store doors.”

The modified baler works well, he says, but operating it was difficult at first, and he has to drive slowly.

“You really have to watch it,” he says. “The fellow on the tractor has to be pretty bright about baling hay.”

It's made by Esch Hay Equipment, Strasburg, PA, and sold by Messick's Farm Equipment, Elizabethtown. A stationary model that makes 8 × 6 × 4½" bales weighing about 3½ lbs is also available.

For more information on the balers, call 800-222-3373 or log on to Call Youngberg at 605-456-2573 at 7 a.m., Mountain Time.