A niche hay and straw market promises higher profits to Indiana and Illinois growers – if they can leave the noxious weeds out of the bales.

By meeting qualifications of new state weed seed-free forage and mulch certification programs, the states’ producers can show proof to buyers that their bales contain no noxious weeds. And that lets them enter a market that has only been available to Western growers, who have had noxious weed-free programs for years.

"I've had calls from people who have been looking for hay that's free of weeds that are on this particular noxious weeds list," says Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist. "The calls come from people wanting to trail ride in the national parks system. The national parks are trying to keep their parks free of these troublesome invasive weeds.

"The other interest in this program has come from contractors wanting straw that would be noxious weed/troublesome plant seed-free and utilized for reducing erosion in highway construction."

The Indiana Noxious Weed Seed-Free Forage and Mulch Certification Program was developed in cooperation with Purdue University. It is administered by the Indiana Crop Improvement Association (ICIA).

The Illinois Crop Improvement Association (ICIA), through the North American Weed Management Association, is offering its own Certified Weed Free Forage and Mulch Program.

For hay and straw to be certified noxious weed seed-free, the preharvested crop – and areas where it is stored – cannot contain the seed of 67 invasive weeds.

If one prohibited weed is found in a hay or wheat field inspected by ICIA personnel, it doesn’t mean the entire field fails to meet the certification standard, says Joe DeFord, manager of ICIA field programs. Parts of fields can be certified noxious weed seed-free.

"If a designated area or field has none of those weeds at inspection, then within 10 days producers can harvest it and call it certified noxious weed seed-free," DeFord explains. "The inspections happen every time there is a harvested crop. Obviously, for straw that's going to happen one time, 10 days prior to the wheat field being harvested.”

Hay is inspected before each cutting, he adds. Any areas or fields that have noxious weeds at the flowering stage, when the seed is mature, will not be certified.

To get certification, growers must each pay a $500 lifetime ICIA membership fee, a $10 application fee, a $10 per field fee, $2.75 per acre for field inspection and a nominal charge for certification bale tags. Other possible costs include herbicide treatments.

The return on investment can be worth the added expense, DeFord says. “A weed-free bale of straw, for instance, might garner a dollar to maybe $2 more a bale. It depends on the market," he says. "In terms of hay, I've heard that national parks will garner up to twice the typical value of hay sold at local Indiana markets for the bales they sell."

Not every producer, however, is cut out for the noxious weed/troublesome plant-free hay and straw business, Johnson warns.

"This program probably caters best to individuals who have been marketing hay successfully, particularly those who have worked with horse owners," Johnson says. "To think that even 25% of the forage producers in the state will sign on to do this is too high. But certainly there could very well be 20% of the cash crop hay producers in the state who would find this of interest."

For more about Indiana’s program, log on to www.indianacrop.org/weedfreeprogram.htm. The Web page includes a link to certification guidelines and list of the 67 noxious weeds and troublesome plants. Or contact the Indiana ICIA at 866-899-2518 or icia@indianacrop.org.

For more on the Illinois program, visit NAWMA’s Web site at http://www.nawma.org, or contact Ryan Johnson at 217-359-4053 or rjohnson@ilcrop.com.