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Bagged Hay Fills a Special Niche
by Steve McGill
The Furrow, Spring 1992

Discriminating buyers are paying up to &7.50 for each 50-pound plastic bag of this chopped, dehydrated alfalfa hay.

    Ray Bert and his son, Carlton, are bagging chopped, dehydrated alfalfa and marketing it as a convenient, premium-quality horse feed.
    The Berts' primary business is growing alfalfa and operating alfalfa-dehydration-and-pelleting plants at four locations in Kansas. The family business is called Bert & Wetta Sales, Inc.
    In 1987, the company began selling bagged hay under the brand name US Alfalfa. The Berts converted a storage area near their pelleting plant at Larned, Kan., for bagging hay.
    Most of the hay goes to feed stores in the Southeast. Carlton says retail customers are paying "hefty" prices for the hay- up to $7.50 for each 50-pound bag. That's about 20 percent more than the feed stores are charging for individual hay bales of similar weight.
    Most persons who buy hay by the ton wouldn't pay so much for hay, Carlton says. But many of the buyers of bagged hay own only one or two horses, and they want to pamper them with best in feed. Price isn't a major consideration. Carlton says many buyers report that less feed is wasted with bagged hay. They also report that their animals look better and perform better when they're fed bagged hay.
    Also, bagged hay is convenient to haul, store, and feed. Many buyers don't own pickups. Carlton says they can haul a couple of bags of hay home in the seat of an automobile if they want to, because there's no mess.
    Rough start. He reports that sales of bagged hay were extremely slow at first. He sold only a few tons of bagged hay in 1987 and 1988. Bu then sales began to pick up in 1989, and he sold more than 1,000 tons in 1990. Bagged-hay sales surpassed 2,000 tons last year.
    One reason sales are concentrated in the Southeast is that rain and humidity make it difficult for growers there to make top-quality hay. Also, whether it's locally produced or shipped in, baled hay must be carefully stored and quickly used to avoid spoilage. Hay in air-tight plastic bags, however, is protected from moisture damage and is easier to keep.
    To produce this premium product, the Berts start with top-quality alfalfa they've grown themselves or bought standing in the field. They cut at about on-tenth bloom to get the best combination of yield and nutrient content.
    Battling beetles. Because the hay is marketed as horse feed, the company doesn't use hay-conditioning rollers on its swathers. This is to try to prevent the crushing of blister beetles, which carry a compound that's extremely toxic to horses. Randall Higgins, a Kansas State University entomologist, says that a horse could die if it eats 25 to 100 beetles, or their toxin on forage, in a single feeding. The Berts' practice is to try to let the critters crawl out of the windrows before the crop is harvested.
    After the swathed forage wilts to about 30 percent moisture, crews chop it using a 3-inch theoretical cut. Chopping while it's moist helps keep leaves on the stems, increasing total forage yields. In addition, the leaves are much higher than stems in protein and energy, which helps boost nutrient density.
    Air-cooled. Next, trucks haul the chopped forage to the dehydration plant, where forced air heated with natural gas dries the forage to 8 percent moisture. When first dried, the forage is at 180F. It has to be cooled under controlled conditions with aeration fans to prevent moisture migration, which might otherwise cause wet sports and spoiled forage.
    The cooled hay drops from an overhead bin to a bag-filling chamber. When the chamber is full of hay, a hydraulic cylinder compresses it to half its former length and simultaneously places the hay in a tough plastic bag that measures 12x15x21 inches when full.
    Bagged hay typically weighs about 50 percent more than and equal volume of conventional baled hay. As a result, Carlton says, bagged hay is a bit less costly to ship to the Southeast than twine-tied bales.
    Carl and Theone Woker who own and operate T.C. Tack and Training Stables, Conway, Kan., were among the first to begin feeding US Alfalfa bagged hay. The Wokers say bagged hay has several advantages.
    Perhaps most important, the bagged hay is extremely dense in nutrients and also relatively gentle on a horse's digestive system. Carl's grandson Ray says this athlete's diet helps keep the Wokers' Paso Fino horses from losing weight during months of hard workouts.
    Theone says she used to try supplying her horses with higher-energy rations by feeding more grain concentrate, but this often gave horses upset stomachs. With the nutrient-dense bagged hay hay replacing baled hay, the horses are able to get the energy they need. They eat more, there are no digestive problems, and the horses can work harder and longer without losing weight.
    "However, the bagged hay is a hot feed," Carl warns. "Don't switch all at once from baled hay to bagged hay because that can cause upset stomachs and throw your horses off feed. You need to introduce about 10 percent more bagged hay and withdraw 10 percent of other types of hay each day.
    The only hay the Wokers feed is bagged hay. At each feeding, each horse gets its own sack of grain concentrate and hay. The Wokers weigh both ingredients because that's more accurate than feeding by volume, helping them to prevent over- or under-feeding.
    Tiny demand. Carlton Bert says there's not much room for other growers to get into the business of bagging alfalfa hay. It is too costly to feed to sheep or cattle. Even large-scale horse stables are likely to stick with baled hay.
    "That leaves a niche market of people who are feeding only a few horses or other companion animals," Carlton says, "and you have to find people who can recognize value and are willing to pay more for bagged hay to cover the additional cost of chopping, dehydrating, cooling, and bagging. I have to delver to several feed stores to find a home for each truckload of bagged hay."

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