From GENE LOGSDON
The farm news is reporting that the amount of hay we are shipping overseas, mainly to China and Saudi Arabia, has doubled in recent years. The total is still only a small part of our hay production so it’s not yet earthshaking news, I guess, but for someone brought up in agriculture “before farmers went crazy” (my father’s pet phrase), that is an alarming trend. I grew up with the common saying: “sell the hay, sell the farm.” Selling off hay was a big no-no because it meant you were removing from the farm the soil nutrients tied up in that hay that should go back onto the soil as green manure and animal manure. The articles I’ve read so far on exporting hay do not mention this very important factor, so, even though I know most of you who read this blog are well aware of it, maybe it is time to review one of the basic fundamentals of sustainable farming.
Hay— or forage, speaking more broadly— is the foundation of economical farming. Corn and soybeans get all the glory, even as their production propels agriculture toward much higher input costs than is necessary to feed the world. I personally think that we started down the road to ruination when most farmers took legume forages out of their crop rotations. The main reasons that happened were that making hay requires lots of physical work and, in most heavily farmed regions, there’s a likely chance that rain will fall after the hay is mowed, making a good harvest a chancy affair. But both these concerns have been rendered rather minor by modern technology. New hay-handling machines take much of the work out of the job. And modern hay-handling methods along with much improved weather predicting have reduced at least by half the chances of getting hay ruined by rain before it can be baled and stored.
Haying and pasturing bring sustainability to agriculture. A field in hay is not eroding, is less vulnerable to compaction, is much less vulnerable to injury by hail and storms, and if you do lose a cutting, you do not lose the whole crop. If a cutting is spoiled by rain, it can make decent enough bedding or mulch. If the hay includes legumes, as it should, it adds significant amounts of nitrogen to the soil, saving a big part of the fertilizer bill. A field in hay for two or three years or more cuts down on weed pressure. Sometimes weeds growing in the hay actually add to the feed value of the forage. Then when a old stand of hay is plowed under, it supplies yet more fertilizer as green manure. The fact that you don’t have to tear up the soil and plant the hay crop every year saves the cost of planting whatever you would be growing in its place. Rainy springs make hay grow better while the grain farmers are gnawing their fingernails waiting to get in the field. Rainy autumns don’t bother the hay farmer much either. His crop is usually already in the barn.
But that’s only the beginning of the economy of hay. A farmer who really wants to achieve decent profit margins without borrowing huge sums of money to buy more land, raises livestock as well as crops because when you feed the stock what you raise, it is worth more than selling it outright. An acre on a livestock or dairy farm is worth three on a grain only farm. Moreover good, high quality hay, can be the only feed necessary along with pasture. I once fed a hundred cows solely on some really good hay for a month, just to see what would happen. The milk check and the butterfat count went up and the gallons of milk dipped only slightly. My son, right now, is feeding out beef steers strictly on hay and pasture and the meat tastes wonderful.
But the main reason why selling hay off the farm is unsustainable is that when it is fed to animals on the farm, it goes back on the soil as manure—very valuable fertilizer when the stuff you buy today is costing farmers hundreds of dollars an acre. The manure not only provides fertilizer but organic matter.
It costs lots of money to ship hay overseas. The practice is somewhat economical where China is involved because she has all those shipping barges coming here with manufactured products and will haul the hay cheap rather than go back empty. So the shipping cost is less than it might otherwise be, but the cost of carbon pollution is just as great. The hay going overseas is mostly being produced in dry western states where irrigation is necessary. So we are shipping precious water overseas too.
I just don’t see how it pays except for agribusiness selling export hay producers a lot of fertilizer.