Mike Lentsch is on top of the world in the Dakota hay business. He and his family operate Lentsch Hay Farms, Veblen, S.D. Their grass hay fields stretch across the top of the Coteau Hills.
“We have unique hay,” Mike says. “It grows on the highest point in South Dakota east of the Missouri River, so we get some high yields because of the spring rains, yet we have some good dry conditions for putting up hay. Some of our customers say our hay feeds more like Western irrigated hay than eastern dryland hay.”
Mike farms with his wife, Diane, and they get help from his parents, John and Karen. Together, they put up about 1,300 acres of hay, primarily for the horse market. They have fields of orchardgrass, timothy grass, alfalfa, native prairie grass and mixtures of all four types.
• Lentsch Hay takes advantage of its location in the Coteau Hills.
• High-quality grass hay earns a premium in the horse market.
• Goal: earn a premium on crop produced on marginal ground.
The Lentsches test all their hay, getting relative feed quality and feed value numbers to help them describe the hay to customers and to establish prices. Like alfalfa hay producers, they pay close attention to the weather when they put up hay. Grass hay cut and baled in sunny weather will be sweeter and higher in carbohydrates than hay made during cloudy weather.
The Lentsches take several steps to reduce bale spoilage, which can be substantial since the outer 4 to 5 inches of a round bale accounts for 25% of the volume. They use mesh to wrap bales, unless a customer specifically requests twine. They cut hay north to south, so that the windrows dry more evenly. They stack bales in north to south lines, too, so that they get the same amount of sunlight on both sides of the bales.
Attention to detail
Such attention to detail results in premium prices and repeat customers. They have most of their hay sold by the end of October each year. Mike markets hay to horse owners throughout the region. Some buyers want orchard and alfalfa hay mixtures. Others want timothy grass and alfalfa mixes. Reprocessors also buy their grass hay, mix it with alfalfa, and rebale it or bag it for different livestock and pet markets. Some of their hay has been sold as hamster feed. The Lentsches also sell grass hay to dairies for feeding dry cows and replacement heifers. Lower-quality hay goes to local cattle producers to feed stock cows.
Mike likes being able to negotiate directly with customers to establish a price, rather than having to accept prices set by traders in Minneapolis, Chicago or Kansas City, as with cash grains and livestock.
“Our goal is, earn a premium on a crop that we can produce on marginal ground,” Mike says. “That’s something we can do with grass hay.”
This article published in the June, 2010 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.