Certification of organic quality is a grueling, albeit rewarding, experience. Farms cannot simply label their hay as organic without undergoing rigorous procedures. The process takes several years, lots of paper work, and official inspections, all to ensure the land, equipment, livestock feed, and general operations are up to snuff. Records tracking the seeding, planting, crop rotation history, materials purchased (e.g. weed and pest control), transportation, and production need to be kept. Officials scrutinize fields and storage facilities, gather information, and insist on farmers’ full compliance while they consider a farm’s organic eligibility. In order to become “certified organic”, farmers have to transition hay, pasture, and crop land and assist their livestock in becoming accustomed to a new food source. To meet USDA standards, farmers must follow the necessary protocol: the hay cannot develop from genetically modified seeds and, after the hay is cut, it can’t be irradiated (exposed to any radiation).
There are a variety of differences between organic and non-organic farming practices in regards to hay. Organic producers utilize a longer crop rotation than their regular counterparts. Unlike on a conventional farm, no pesticides or synthetic chemicals are added to the soil when harvesting organic crops. Whereas regular grass for hay uses artificial nutrients, organic hay is only fertilized by real manure. In addition, most farms employ chemicals to rid themselves of unwanted insects preying on the hay, but organic farmers refuse to use unnatural pest control, instead relying on a combination of biological means to repel bugs. Birds, beneficial insects, crop rotation, and cover crops are all methods to ward off insect damage without the aid of harmful pesticides.
The demand for organic hay is roughly twenty percent higher than the supply, and hay producers are having trouble keeping up, so now is a great time to go into the organic hay business. Organic farming, ironically, involves lower yields and higher prices, somewhere between ten and fifty percent, yet production costs also end up being lower than average, as well, even factoring in unexpected expenses. Cultivating organic hay is a boon to both buyer and seller. Organic dairy farms are one of the many avid consumers profiting off of this kind of hay—in order to maintain the organic integrity of their products, they purchase only organic hay to feed their herds and, in turn, get a premium price on the dairy output. Calling livestock organic is contingent upon the animals’ sole consumption of organic hay: no organic hay, no organic cows. High quality hay means strong cows, better milk production and more cash in the dairy farmer’s pocket. Dairies are not the only ones benefitting from organic hay as organic beef provides a viable customer base, too.
Hay consisting of high protein legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, is quite popular, but alfalfa alone isn’t kind to a cow’s digestive tract due to lack of fiber. Not to mention, more protein than cattle can use results in too high a level of milk urea nitrogen, so a varied diet is critical. A grass/alfalfa blend of organic hay has actually been shown to increase milk production. Corn, cowpeas, oats, soybeans, barley, mixed hay, etc. are also big sellers. As in any economic venture, the decision to grow hay organically is risky, but the need is higher than ever. Organic hay, like the organic meats, breads, fruits, and vegetables touted for their healthfulness in the grocery store, is very nutritional, actively promoting herbivores’ gastrointestinal and dental health. It is not even limited to nourishing livestock alone—animals like guinea pigs, rabbits, prairie dogs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, and a multitude of other herbivores enjoy the tasty treat. Some farmers will argue there is no actual difference between organic hay and regular hay, but the marketplace would beg to differ.
Forage crops and fodder crops serve the same purpose, but thrive in different environments and require different levels of care to keep them prosperous. For those with larger growing areas, forage crops can prove ideal. For those with smaller farms and who want to closely monitor food intake, fodder crops work better.
The Hay Manager, LLC
24064 478th Avenue
Trent, SD 57065