Decrease in dairy farms impacts Vt. hay crop
HARTFORD — Think Vermont agriculture, and the first thing that comes to mind is dairy and maple syrup.
But hay and haylage — those giant white plastic-wrapped marshmallows stuffed with 1,200 pounds of moisture-laden grasses — yielded $152 million in production last year, making it one of the state's biggest cash crops, according to the USDA.
And some 77 percent of the state's acres devoted to crops are used for growing hay, the most recent government survey finds. New Hampshire, by comparison, has less than one-fifth the amount of land devoted to hay and haylage cultivation.
"Ranking commodities in Vermont from gross receipts, dairy comes in around 80 percent. The second one is hay and then maple syrup is way down there," said Sid Bosworth, a forage crops specialist with the UVM Extension's agriculture program. "That always surprises people."
Vermont is "a livestock state and there's a lot of hay that moves between farms," he said.
But while the hay crop accounts for a relatively large portion of the state's agricultural production, farmers are quick to point out that no one's getting rich baling and selling the crop.
If anything, the haying business has become less forgiving in recent years. Prices haven't budged much, production costs have remained high and the decline of dairy farming has lowered demand.
USDA data represent the value of hay production and not how much Vermont hay was sold into the retail market — an unknown percentage of the hay produced in the state is consumed by the farmers who harvest it for their own livestock.
Moreover, in terms of tons per acre, corn yields four times more silage than grasses and its higher protein content is more prized as feed by dairy farmers. (The USDA does not provide a dollar value for corn silage production as it does for hay production.)
Indeed, the peaceful scene of tractors sweeping green fields belies the hardscrabble economics behind the hay business. Despite taking up so much cultivated land in Vermont, hay is hardly a gold mine for those who make it.
Now, after a rough start earlier this summer because of drought, the region's haymakers are wrapping up their second cuts and in some cases beginning their third of the season.
What began as a disappointing hay yield is looking to become a more bountiful one.
"June and July were pretty dry and yield was down 30 percent to 50 percent on some fields," said George Miller, who cuts and bails about 180 acres on behalf of landowners in the Jericho district of Hartford. "Now the third crop has been pretty good because of the rain."
Last year Miller produced 17,000 square bales and 400 round bales, which he harvests to feed his herd of 30 Jersey cows and wholesales half to his brother, Chet Miller, a Norwich hay broker who in turn retails his brother's hay along with that he sources from other suppliers to about 30 customers annually.
He annually mows 180 acres and retails square bales for "around $5" and round haylage bails for $45. What he use himself of wholesale to his brother, George Miller sells to a few customers.
Miller estimates hay sales accounts for about 25 percent of his gross revenue, which comes from a combination of haying, dairy — he sells his herd's milk to Spring Brook Farm in Reading, Vt. — and maple syrup production.
He describes haying, from a business standpoint, as "probably break-even," given the cost of his time, labor and maintenance expenses due to "wear and tear on the equipment."
"The price has really been stagnant" the past few years, he said, because of lower demand due to the state's declining dairy business.
Chet Miller said he brokers about 20,000 square bales per year, mostly to people who need it for their horses and sheep.
With a one-ton 1998 Chevy Cheyenne, Chet Miller spends two to three days a week trucking his bales to about 30 customers. The other two days a week he works at McNamara Dairy in Plainfield.
"I provide a service," he said, explaining that supplying customers with regular hay deliveries spares them the headache of buying it and transporting it themselves. "That's my value."
But brokering hay isn't going to turn him into a gentleman farmer, he said.
"If I pay $4 for square bales and sell them for $5 or $5.50 that's not a big margin," Chet Miller said.
He estimates that his hay business generates an income of $20,000 to $30,000 a year but "then I have $10,000 for gas," he said.
The reasons for haying in Vermont have more to do with practicing good agriculture than they do about cultivating a valuable cash crop, said Cary Giguire, agricultural resource management section chief at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
"Hay and haylage is important in crop management and water quality issues. You need to rotate your fields for nutrient management reasons but also to mitigate pest pressure. Most nutrient plans see someone growing corn for five years and alfalfa or a mixed hay plan for the sixth, seventh and eighth."
Or, put another way, haying is to summer as snow plowing is to winter: a necessary function that can earn money on the side but is not enough to sustain a stand-alone business.
"You plow to keep your driveway clear and you hay to keep your field open," Giguire said. "There's not a lot of money in it."
Haying is the last vestige of farming for some farmers who have given up on livestock.
Gary Eastman, who hays 150 acres on his 112-year-old family farm in Weathersfield Bow in addition to cutting another 150 acres for others, used to have a herd of 100 dairy cattle that consumed his farm's hay but now harvests it into about 700 round bales annually.
The wet haylage bales he sells for $45 each and the round dry hay bales for $50 each because they take longer to dry, rake and ted.
He hays with his nephew and another man, starting around June 1 of each year and supplements that income with what he earns by delivering 120 cords of wood each year and his 2,300-tap maple operation.
"You wouldn't be able to buy a farm and pay the mortgage," he said about haying. "I can do it because everything is paid for. There's no way to do it otherwise. I'm not buying a condo on Lake Sunapee."
One of Hartford's biggest haymakers is Marty Lyman who, with his son Tim mows and bales about 300 acres around the Jericho district near Miller's farm.
Last year they produced about 22,000 square bales and 600 round bales that they sell "to horse people and some beef farms," Lyman said.
"I was raised on my grandfather's farm, and I've been haying since I was 8- or 9-years-old," Lyman, 67, said. "I don't know anything
The retail price of hay "for probably five to six years has been pretty much the same," he said.
"Everybody tries to stay in that ballpark," he said, referring to the $4 to $5 price of square bales, and $45 to $50 for round ones. Prices can climb with the second and third cuts because they yield less hay per acre later in the season, he said.
But in recent years, as dairy farms have shut down, supply for hay has outstripped demand.
"What we're finding in this area is that there have been two to three dairy farms that have gone out of business," Lyman said. "They are selling hay as well, and it's cutback on the amount we are able to sell."
"There's more hay on the market, more people selling it for the same amount that were buying it before," he continued. "I've had years where I've sold 500, 600, 700 round bales, and last year I sold only 250 to 300 round bales and have 200 of them behind the barn. I never had this many left over before."
Another Jericho district farmer, Tom Ostler, grew up with the Miller brothers and said one of the distinct memories of boyhood in the hills of Hartford was hearing the "thump thump of balers" traversing the fields each summer.
Ostler still harvests "50-plus" acres of hay that this year he sees yielding 2,000 square bales and 250 round bales, most of which he will feed to his herd of Black Angus cattle.
"I'll probably sell 1,000 bales to Chet over time," said Ostler, who teaches natural resources at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center. That amount will bring him between $3,000 to $4,000.
"I sell just enough to cover my costs — diesel, twine and plastic costs, fertilizer costs, that's all when I need some cash flow, I call Chet up," Ostler said.
Giguire, with the state's agriculture department, said that some high-quality hay harvested in Windham County is shipped to the Saratoga race track stables across the state line in New York but for the most part it is uneconomical to transport hay over long distances given the cost of fuel and labor. Still, despite the fact that the cultivation of haying began before the Middle Ages and that hayfields are everywhere in the state, those who make hay still have their trade secrets.
Chet Miller said that the business can be so competitive that, like an angler and his favorite fishing spot, he doesn't like to let on where he gets his hay, even when asked. Otherwise people will go to his supplier and buy it directly.
"'Nice hay,' people will say, 'where did you get it?' " Miller relates.
"That's a question I don't want to answer."
While haying might strike observers as a stress-free operation, it's anything but: Haying a field requires a lot of alertness because of the dangers of rocks and crevices that can result in costly damage to equipment if not avoided.
At the same time, Ostler said, it can be a tranquil experience that has a meditation-like effect.
"I've been told by psychologists that doing things in circles is good for the head," he said. "It definitely slows things down and you become an astute observer of wildlife, birds mainly — they are watching you. No matter what, you really can't rush it.
"I love it. I absolutely love it. Every year you try to do it better. I feel pretty lucky I am able to do it."
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