Missouri hay producer finds niche market for small square bales

Glenn and Toni Obermann took Champion and Reserve Champion awards in alfalfa and grass classes 4 to 8, and Champion in alfalfa classes 1 to 3, according to Alan Freeman, agriculture stewardship and development manager for the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The Obermanns have won championship awards from seven of eight years since 2010.

The Obermann hay posted relative forage quality scores of 234.5 and protein of 22.7 percent. United States Department of Agriculture test guidelines consider RFQ over 185 to be the highest class—supreme.

The southwest Missouri producers mix quality forage with time-tested, research-based agricultural and production practices to achieve high scores in RFQ, total digestibility and relative feed value.

Obermann’s wall of ribbons continues to grow. At the recent Ozark Empire Fair Hay Show in Springfield, the Obermanns took champion honors in the dry hay show in legumes with an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix of WL alfalfa & Crown Royal orchardgrass. It tested at 234.5 RFQ and 60.14 TDN. They won top honors in five of the last nine years.

University of Missouri Extension forage specialist Tim Schnakenberg says Obermann’s attention to detail and timing combine for consistently superior hay. Obermann says he did not attend college, so he relies on MU Extension to teach him about university research and practices. He regularly attends workshops and has been a tour host for MU Extension events.

Southwest Missouri is hay and cattle country. The 2018 drought began in 2017 with low water reserves, followed by a crippling lack of precipitation in 2018, says Schnakenberg. Some producers began dipping into dry hay supplies early this year and are scrambling to find high quality hay to buy. Obermann says he receives six to seven calls daily from producers whose drought-stressed hay fields produced as little as one third to one half of normal amounts this year.

Obermann is no novice at growing alfalfa. He began helping his father in the alfalfa fields when he was 9 years old. He and his father hand-seeded 6 acres of alfalfa back then. Half of Obermann’s hay is alfalfa. The other half is an alfalfa-orchard grass mix.

Obermann owned a dairy herd until July 29, 2010, before finding a niche market for high-quality alfalfa in small bales. This market includes cattle, horse, sheep, goat, llama and alpaca owners. He misses raising cattle, but found that he needed to devote all of his efforts to quality hay.

As an ex-dairyman, Obermann knows what livestock owners want in their hay.

“The people who win hay shows are dairyman. They know quality hay and realize if they are going to get performance, the forage is critical,” says MU Extension livestock specialist Eldon Cole. “He takes a great deal of pride in doing this, as do others. He knows his customers very well. His reputation is good and he prices fairly based upon the current market.”

Obermann’s 90 acres produced 14,000 bales on five cuttings in 2017. The rest of his 200-acre farm is in a rotation of wheat, soybean and he also raises straight grass hay. In a few areas, he cut six times. Like other growers, he expects less this year. Good rains in the May to August period boosted cuttings in 2016 and 2017. In the 2012 drought, he got two early cuttings before the rain shut off.

He gets an average of five cuttings per season, baling to Dec. 1 after a killing frost. Schnakenberg says conventional hay baling wisdom suggests Sept. 15 as the last day to cut alfalfa and Nov. 1 after a killing frost. Obermann leaves about a foot of growth at the last cutting.

He cuts alfalfa every 28 days to generate shoots instead of seed. He uses a starter culture inoculant for good fermentation and to boost the hay’s shelf life. This allows him to bale at 25 to 26 percent moisture instead of the recommended 17 percent. Proper hay moisture is critical to reduce leaf shatter and nutrient loss.

Every part of his hay-making processing runs on time. “It’s very time sensitive,” he says. “But once you get it figured out, it’s kind of fun. If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it right.”

Obermann bales hay at night when possible. By doing this, leaves remain open for a softer, leafier and tastier product. He checks stems for moisture to keep it from seeping through and spoiling the hay. As long as stems are dry, dew dampens them and prevents shattering of leaves.

Most of Obermann’s bales weigh 50 to 60 pounds. “I do not bale 90-pound bales because no one wants to buy moldy hay,” he says. “Bales that tight and that heavy simply cannot breathe and could mold.”

The smaller bales require less machine handling, weigh less, store easier and allow better portion control. Smaller bales lose less leaves and provide more palatable forage for cows and horses than large round bales Obermann says. “These bales require manual labor. Automatic equipment does not work for small alfalfa bales,” he says.

He grows alfalfa for four years and then no-tills orchard grass seed into his alfalfa field. This process extends his hay stand for another four to five years. As alfalfa plants age, they die out and leave bare areas. The orchard grass fills the bare areas and provides weed control.

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After this, he plants into a soybean-wheat double crop rotation. He plants alfalfa in the last two weeks of May-first week of June after danger of frost passes. Alfalfa emerges within three days.

He applies 900 pounds of fertilizer in split applications to encourage growth and maintain persistence. Obermann says high fertilizer levels keep crabgrass and other weeds at bay. “Good fertility is one of his keys to persistence and production,” Schnakenberg says.

Unlike many growers, he uses his own sprayer for time-sensitive applications. This allows him to respond quickly to disease and insects. It also allows him to adjust spray times to wind speeds and weather conditions.

“If you take care of alfalfa, it comes back,” he says.

In the last year, he added a new storage barn that features top ventilation for cooling. The barn prevents sun bleaching to maintain appearance and offers protection from the elements. He also invested in a used self-propelled bale wagon that picks up small bales and conveys them to a single employee to stack on a wagon. When completely stacked, the conveyor reverses for unloading into a barn.

Obermann says his operation is labor intensive, but worth it. The proof is in the high quality hay that comes from his farm.

“Glenn is an outstanding hay producer,” Schnakenberg says. “He puts a lot of effort into it.”