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Building a Hay Business: Learn By Example

Josh Michaelson grew up spending his summers putting up hay, and his haying know-how grew into a passion for the business of harvesting and marketing top-quality alfalfa.

“I started driving tractors and semis in the field,” Josh says. “I always knew this was what I wanted to do, and I learned by getting on-the-job experience.”

Today, Josh, 34, and his wife, Meagan, are 50-50 partners with his parents, Jerry and Kim Michaelson. Working together on their farm near Crookston, Minnesota, the Michaelsons harvest alfalfa from about 3,000 acres. They market it to dairies in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, with 95% of their sales going to repeat customers.

Harvested over three to four cuttings, the alfalfa yields 4.5 tons per acre. To keep yields high, the Michaelsons give their fields a break after about five years of continuous hay. After terminating thinning stands, the Michaelsons grow wheat and soybeans on these fields before reseeding them to alfalfa.

As with every serious undertaking, there’s an art to putting up top-quality hay with the kind of predictability that keeps customers coming back.

“Getting alfalfa harvested in a timely fashion is probably the most important factor in getting hay of high quality,” Jerry says. “There’s a narrow window of opportunity. The relative feed value drops drastically when alfalfa gets a little more mature.”

Making time-sensitive decisions is part of the haying process, and the father-son partners have learned to trust one another’s judgment to make such decisions on-the-go.

“Sometimes, we only have a four-hour window of optimal weather or the right hay conditions for baling,” Josh explains. “Whoever is available for baling has to make the decision about when it’s ready.”

Josh gained this skill over time.

“I learned from Dad,” he says. “He set me up with experiences and opportunities to see how to make decisions. As I was growing up, Dad made all the decisions, but he always involved me in the process. With life experiences, I learned, and the more involved I became, the more Dad listened to my input. I gradually learned to make accurate decisions.”

Decisions involve spouses, too

In making business decisions today, such as deciding what equipment to trade or purchase, or how to price hay, Jerry and Josh discuss options with Kim and Meagan, who are full-time partners in the day-to-day work.

“We won’t do something that we don’t all agree on,” Josh says. “If we disagree, we’ll figure out something else. We have differing views all the time. Sometimes it takes a while to talk things through.”

A major decision currently under discussion involves an opportunity to expand acreage. The questions raised by this possibility revolve around equipment and labor. Can their existing line of machinery handle the expansion? Can they, with help from current employees, accommodate the extra labor in a timely manner?

“We discuss decisions with an open mind,” Josh says. “We try to listen to what each person has to say and to see their point of view.”

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