|Square Bale Hay Business is Hip|
As many hay producers have made the switch in recent years to round bales, square bales have gotten increasingly harder to find—especially those made from quality hay.
Ben Burleson saw the need facing many small farmers–the need for someone to produce and market good hay at a fair price.
Burleson, 39, lives near Guin in Marion County. Having a background in hay and cattle, he set out to return to his roots and to provide a service for those in his area.
"We started selling square bales about five years ago," said Burleson. "We started locally, but it kept growing."
Burleson noted word-of-mouth is usually the best form of advertising for a business like his.
He was selling his Bermuda hay to people directly when an opportunity presented itself. He had the chance to sell his square bales through a co-op store in Starkville, MS.
From there, Burleson went on to furnish hay to another co-op store in Columbus, MS, a feed store in Fayette and Quality Co-ops in Fayette, Hamilton, Haleyville and Jasper.
He uses van trailers to house the hay at the stores.
Some customers prefer to come to the field or the barn to have the hay loaded directly onto their trailers. Burleson tries to accommodate all his customers.
With the ever-expanding list of customers, Burleson’s production rate has sky rocketed.
"The first year, we baled about 8,000 or 9,000 square bales," recalled the Auburn University graduate. "This past year, we baled about 20,000."
This year his production could almost double along with the number of acres he will be working.
Burleson has 30 acres of his own land he sprigged last year which will be ready for production this season. In addition, he will be picking up 100 acres of his neighbor’s established hay land.
All together, Burleson plans to produce Bermuda hay on 250 acres this year.
Handling that many square bales can seem overwhelming. Burleson uses a 10-bale accumulator to make the job do-able. He said about the only time he has to handle the hay by hand is when it’s loaded onto the trailers.
Burleson’s wife, Emily, pointed out several members of their youth group at church often help with the loading. Son-in-law Seth Seaborn, who is married to his oldest daughter, Ashley, is also ready to assist.
Noting that he is grateful for the help from the local boys, Burleson said many of the kids have never been around a farming environment and must be shown how to work safely around the equipment.
According to Emily, daughter Alisyn Hayes is an accomplished tedder and rake operator. Burleson’s daughter Shelby is also quick to help when she’s around.
No Substitute for Quality
While many people subscribe to the notion that hay is simply filler in an animal’s diet, Burleson is a firm believer in producing a high-quality hay.
He routinely sends samples of his hay to the University of Georgia to be tested for its nutritional value. Last year, he placed second and third in a statewide competition for hay producers.
The hay he entered in the contest had protein levels in the 15 to 16 percent range.
He is able to consistently produce hay with such a high protein level because he cuts the hay about every 28 to 30 days, regardless of height.
With a growing season usually starting in mid to late-April, Burleson cuts most of his fields four or five times each season.
Burleson likes to cut his hay at night, noting the sugars in the grass are typically higher late in the evening due to the respiration cycle of the grass.
Once the hay is cut, it is tedded and tedded again on the following day. Burleson tries to bale on the third day and usually teds the hay in the morning before baling in the afternoon.
Burleson uses the relative forage quality (RFQ) index to rate his hay as well. This method allows for different species of hay to be compared. It’s sort of like being able to compare apples to oranges accurately.
His most recent RFQ figures for his Bermuda hay were in the high 120s.
Burleson admitted he’s had customers balk at the price he set for his hay. But, once they feed his product, they realize the quality is worth the price.
"Just like with any feed, if you start with a quality product, it might cost you a little more to start with, but in the long run it will save you money," said Burleson. "You won’t have to feed as much or handle it as much."
In addition to his quality feed hay, Burleson also produces mulch hay.
Burleson and his family are members of the First Baptist Church in Guin. He and Emily are involved with the AWANA program.
He and Emily will travel to Haiti in June on a mission trip. Previous missions have taken them to Kentucky and West Virginia.
He is a member of the National Hay Association and the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association.
Persons interested in contacting Burleson about his hay may call him at (205) 712-8034.
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.