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Roy Smith: Want to buy some hay?

The primary crops on my small, retirement farming operation are soybeans and corn. There are also three small fields around the farmstead that were pastures when I raised livestock. Since I quit feeding cattle these fields have been used for raising brome grass. Because I no longer have hay making equipment, my neighbor who is in the hay business takes care of the crop from those ten acres. We split the crop half and half, with him selling the hay to his horse customers.

The normal practice is to top dress with 200 pounds of 45-0-0 around April 1 and harvest around July 1. This produces an abundance of grass and leaves time for the plants to build nutrients before winter. As a result I have a nearly weed free crop of small bales which are ideal for the horse owners in this bedroom community.

I always check with the neighbor before purchasing the fertilizer to make sure the agreement is going to continue. This morning was our regular farmer’s breakfast meeting in town. My neighbor and I agreed to the usual arrangement for raising and harvesting the grass hay again this year. On the way home I stopped at the local elevator to order the fertilizer. I knew it would be expensive because the nitrogen for my corn crop cost 50 cents per pound when I purchased it in December.

The cost of the fertilizer is $595 per ton, or 66 cents per pound. Without the fertilizer, a brome crop is diminished dramatically. I could cut down on the rate. That would also cut down on the yield. I have always felt that nitrogen fertilizer on cool season grass was one of the best paying inputs on the farm. If nitrogen prices remain where they are, I may rethink that theory!  

As long as my neighbor continues to have a good market for grass hay, I guess I will continue to produce it. Until 2007, I made more net profit from my 10 acres of brome than I did from grain crops. That was not the case in 2010. Whether those days of good profitability return will depend to a great extent on the price of nitrogen and whether the price of the hay can compete with soybeans and corn. As with soybeans and corn, I never know what the income per acre will be until the crop is grown, harvested and sold.

The relative profitability of the three crops also depends to a great extent on what grain prices do between now and harvest. At today’s prices, it is difficult to see how the expensively produced grass could compete with a good corn crop. A lot can change before the crops are converted to cash. In the mean time, the current agreement allows me to keep the grass growing around the buildings without the hassle of shredding several times in the summer. This year will be a test case on whether a crop of grass can compete with the normal field crops for acres. I suspect that it will be competitive only in certain specific cases such as the one on my home farm.

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