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Alfalfa producers add value to hay through drying

Mother Nature has not been kind to hay producers in eastern Nebraska this summer. Cooler than normal temperatures and cloudy days have made drying hay a large challenge.

Proper drying of hay, especially alfalfa, can ensure the feeding value of the hay, which leads to more profits for producers and more benefits for the animals eating the hay.

Good investment

Oakland, Neb., alfalfa producer Ron Keogh decided to take a different approach to drying hay this year.

The purchase of a hay dryer from a farm sale in western Iowa already has proven to be a great investment. The set-up, which originally cost over $200,000, was purchased by Keogh for $12,000.

"We took advantage of someone else's misfortune and were very fortunate to purchase this system at the price we did," he said. "We think it is definitely paying for itself."

He said running the dryer costs just pennies and adds as much as $60 per ton to a bale. A second dryer system, which was purchased at the same sale, hasn't been put back together for use yet. He said they may sell it and allow another producer to reap the benefits.

"The investment of this hay dryer has allowed us to bale hay at a higher moisture content in the field, and get hay off the field if a rainstorm is on the way," said Keogh.

Keogh and his son, Jason, can bale hay at up to 30 percent moisture and dry it down to 15 percent moisture after being in the hay dryer for six to seven hours.

They figure they can dry 360 bales per 1,000 gallons of propane, which figures out to less than 3 gallons of propane per bale. "At $0.75 per gallon of propane and using less than 3 gallons per bale, the cost is minor compared to the amount of value it adds to the bale," he said. Keogh takes advantage of being able to contract his propane at reasonable rates.

The dryer blows warm air, heated by the propane, through a vent system, on the bottom of the bales, thus drying the bales from the bottom up. Bales are held into place on the dryer to prevent vibration and allow for uniform drying.

A recent weight test on three bales showed that 420 pounds of water was taken off the bales with the dryer.

Bales must be dried after baling, prior to storage in one of Keogh's four large hay sheds. He said baling at a higher moisture content also allows less damage to the hay. "Raking alfalfa several times makes for more leaf loss, which affects the nutritional value of the hay," he explained. "Our customers like high quality hay and preventing leaf loss leads to better quality hay."

Keeping quality high

Keogh sells most of the alfalfa hay he produces off of his 400 acres of hay ground to dairy producers across the nation. Lower quality hay is sold to feedlots to be ground into the ration fed to their cattle.

Dairy producers, however, want to purchase high quality hay for their cows and generally want to know the exact nutritional value of the hay. Because of this, Keogh tests hay for nutritional value on a regular basis.

"Testing hay is one of the bigger variables when it comes to marketing high quality hay," he said. "All the labs are using different tests; so, we want to get a more uniform test."

Keogh is a member of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (NAMA), which not only helps market the hay, but also assists in more uniform testing of hay to help its members provide a consistently high quality product to customers.

He tests his hay for relative feed value, along with crude protein, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber, digestible dry matter and dry matter intake. All of these are taken into account when ranking the quality of the hay through the association's quality standards.

Keogh also tests for potassium, which he said is critical in his system. Since he doesn't use commercial fertilizer on his hay ground, he likes to know the potassium level. Dairy producers like hay low in potassium, which is generally only available in prairie hay.

In the spring, prior to growth and after each cutting, Keogh adds a product to the fields that provides the proper amounts of the essential nutrients that his soil is lacking. This helps promote a stronger, more vigorous root system, allowing the plant to get a better water supply, as well as being more tolerant to heat and sunlight.

His entire farm, which also includes corn and soybeans, is on a five-year rotation for alfalfa. The rotation is corn, beans and then alfalfa, helping with conservation and soil nutrition.

"Mother Nature is still our number one culprit when it comes to making hay. Our second biggest problem is bugs--alfalfa weevils and aphids can do a lot of damage to our crop," he said.

The Keoghs like to manage what they are spraying on their ground; therefore, they own their own sprayer.

Marketing and customer service

When hay is baled, a propionic acid is sprayed on the hay on the baler to provide a preservative in hopes for the hay to last longer. After baling and any needed drying, the 3x3x8-foot square bales are stored in one of four sheds, which hold 1,224 bales each or 500 tons of hay. Keogh logs a map of each shed in order to trace any problem hay and to keep track of quality, also.

Keogh said they windrow the hay about every 30 days and hope to get four cuttings of hay off each field every year.

Hay is weighed off the field and again prior to loading onto a semi-truck for delivery, in order to keep track of shrinkage. Hay is hauled in off the field on a stacker, and all safety measures are taken when moving and stacking hay, in order to prevent injury to workers and hay.

"We own our own truck for hauling. I like it that way because we know it is handled correctly and it gets there on time. If there is a problem, our customers can talk to the driver and it will be solved before he leaves the hay," he said.

Keogh said working through NAMA to market hay has allowed them to have customers all across the country. "We have customers from College Station, Texas, all the way up to north of Albany, New York, and everywhere in between," he said. "I believe in developing a personal relationship with my customers. If I don't have the hay they need, I'll help them find it."

He tries to personally visit the operations of his customers, if he can, in order for them to realize he is a producer just like they are and understand that he wants to deliver them a consistently high quality product that meets their needs.

Valued membership

Keogh is a past member of the board of directors for NAMA. Nebraska alfalfa producers annually harvest approximately 5 million tons of alfalfa hay on 1.5 million acres. The association, which was founded in 1986, works for these producers to provide livestock producers in other parts of the country with a high quality alfalfa.

Since alfalfa is one of the most time sensitive crops in agriculture, members monitor hay to ensure it is harvested at the optimum time and handled and stored properly.

Keogh said they hold a Mid-American Alfalfa Expo in February each year to allow members and other farmers to learn more about growing alfalfa.

Association staff and members travel to other farm shows, such as the World Dairy Expo, to promote the high quality Nebraska product to dairy producers across the nation.

Keogh said that NAMA is an association that truly works for its members. For more information on NAMA, visit www.nebraska-alfalfa.com.

Jennifer Bremer can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by e-mail at jbremer@hpj.com.

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