First, second, third cutting? Grass, grass mix, alfalfa-grass, or alfalfa? Cost per ton, cost per bale? Two sting or three? Round bales? In the PNW your options for hay forage are incredible! Horse owners in the Pacific Northwest may not realize that we have more options, more varieties, and more quality options for hay than any other region in the US. Hay grown in my own Kittitas Valley gets shipped quite literally around the world, and our local hay prices are influenced by the global market. But how do you decide what to buy wiht all of these choices? What specifically are you paying for; nutrients, energy, fuel for tractors, fertilizer, or convenience? How do you begin to predict what forage will keep your horses healthiest through the grueling months of winter or show season? Even for Liam and me it’s a stressful, costly, and physical endeavor to find hay sources that are readily available, within our budget, best balances our mixed herd’s nutritional needs, and then to stack it in the barn is tough work. That’s why, whenever I meet a professional hay producer, I sit them down and interview them. The more our equestrian communities understand hay farming and forage choices, the more empowered they are to make good feed and supplement decisions. The more conversations I have with hay growers in our region, the more my eyes are opened and I hope that this article does a little of the same for you.
I met Greg Mohnen at the OSU Extension’s “Living on a Few Acres” educational fair in Redmond, OR back in March. He staffed a booth next to me for the Oregon Hay & Forage Association and introduced himself as the 2014 Hay King! “Hay King?” I exclaimed! “What does that entail?” Greg proceeded to pull out multiple pages worth of judge’s sheets with a list of criteria that could rival any presidential election. Every year, he explained, around November the Oregon Hay & Forage Association in cooperation with the OSU Extension Service hosts the Oregon Hay King Contest to crown some of the best hay growers in the state. Growers compete in seven classes including timothy grass hay, grass, retail alfalfa, dairy alfalfa, grass/legume mix, cereal, and cereal/legume mix. The event is used to educate OHFA members or non-members, network, and bring new ideas from research to their farming techniques- all in the name of a little friendly competition. It was a pivotal point in my nutrition based career to see that list of criteria that Greg displayed. Till that point, I had never accurately acknowledged the degree of depth and complexity to creating forage for livestock. Gaining better understanding of forage from a hay grower’s perspective has improved my work as a nutrition consultant.
In 2014 Greg Mohnen won the Grass Hay class for which he had submitted a representative core sample to DairyOne Analytical Company plus exhibited one exemplary bale from his harvest to the judges. Grass hay is tried on two bases; 50% analytics and 50% sensory information (alfalfa exhibits are tried 60% analytics and 40% sensory). A quality test of crude protein, relative feed value, ADF, NDF and total digestible nutrients is considered and compared to known averages and compared to the competition. Secondly, an impressive list of “sensory” factors are critiqued. The sensory scores include color, dust, leafiness, maturity of the plant, and checked for presence of weeds and other foreign matter. “Once I was marked down when the judges found a mouse turd in the bale”, says Mohnen. More impressively, the list goes on to include minute factors like how square the bale is and how tight the bale strings!
Greg on the left. What other hay farmer do you know that gets this close to his forage crop!?
Greg’s passion for forage growing and education is obvious. Not only is he vice president of the OHFA, he is president of the Central Oregon Hay Grower’s Association which is an affiliate of the OHFA. If you’ve never checked out the Central Hay Grower’s website, you’re missing out. The Central Oregon Hay Grower’s Association sponsors a website called hayfinder.org that links buyers with sellers with a search engine. It’s an impressive website, easy to use, and one of the only like it.
Greg’s day job as manager of McGinnis Ranch in Tumalo, OR allows him the opportunity to perfect his craft. While speaking with Greg, I quickly realized how proud he is of his hay and especially of his unique 5-Way grass blend which very consistently produces top quality forage. The blend was created by a local seed company to compliment the region’s climate and farming parameters. It contains a custom ratio of orchardgrass, timothy, ryegrass, brome and fescue varieties, and Greg’s loyal customers pay for the premium quality he harvests.
“What factors are influencing current hay prices”, I asked Greg. “In Central Oregon, grass hay can range from $180 to $240 per ton on average,” he comments. On the lower end of the spectrum are farmers with small acreage, no storage for their hay, and low inputs for fertilizer, irrigation, and machinery. Many hay growers have day jobs in town and use their hay farming as a tax write off and don’t rely on profitability. But large volume hay growers like Greg have greater inputs and therefore are capable of producing more consistent, higher quality forage. Greg is selling his 2015 5-way grass blend at $290 per ton, and he has already sold out. He sells mostly direct to Central Oregon horse and small ruminant owner, but a portion of it does go to California.
“What advice would you have for your horse customers,” was my final question. “I want to know what you think the average horse owner needs to understand better about growing and selling hay.”
“Ask more questions,” was Greg’s perfect response. “It MUST be analyzed. Otherwise you have no idea what you’re getting.” Experienced and knowledgeable hay growers know that green does not imply high quality, though it would seem from customer requests that the majority of hay buyers think so. He used sugar and starch testing as an example of needing the hay analyzed. “It’s impossible to predict simple sugar and starch levels in hay without it.” Greg used an example of first cutting timothy that tested 23% in Water Soluble Carbs in 2014, but tested at 9% WSC this year! Selling so much of his forage to horse owners, Greg understands the questions being asked around the topic of carbohydrates. He works with Dr. Krebs of Bend Equine to provide lower non-structural carbohydrate hay for owners with special needs horses. “Creating low carb hay is not fully understood”, stated Greg. “For that reason, I don’t attempt to make low carb hay. I just harvest it under the best conditions possible, and then send it in for analysis before selling it as low carb.” Unfortunately, Greg’s statements about “low carb” hay are correct, and I fully support his advice to GET IT TESTED. I also understand the limitations on hay growers to grow it. Surprising little is known about HOW to create consistently low-carb hay- and the key word here is “consistent”. Factors beyond farming control, such as weather, can influence the levels of WSC, ESC, and starch. If you think about where the funding and mass inertia is for forage research, it’s in dairy and cattle production where maximizing sugars, starches and energy are the goal. Therefore, a lot is known about creating high carb, high energy hay, and very little is known about creating low carb, low calorie hay.
Looking at an analysis a year will help you gain insight and perspective on what truly makes high quality hay and how it best benefits your feed program. Contact me directly if you are interested in testing your forages or not sure how to decipher the forage test you have. I travel with my “forage pack”- a Penn State forage probe, a cordless drill, a scale for weighing flakes, and dozens of DairyOne forage sampling kits. Please, DO NOT judge your hay quality by looking only at the crude protein or heaven forbid the color! Call me (406-599-7694) and I’ll teach you how to best estimate your forage quality and what supplementation you’ll need to best compiment that forage.
Growing world class hay in Central Oregon