Shipping Hay Overseas



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.


lorenzo levi brown, shepard March 17, 2015 at 10:28 am

If you own land and rent it, you make money
If your rent land and sell hay you make money
If your not going to pass it on, so rent it and make enough money to eat
and pay for the gas to drive the 100 miles or so to get to the one doc around
in our depopultaed rural areas..


Thanks for sharing that, Carmine.

The observation I will make is that China in particular is losing its grassland in the north to desertification and the hay imports are to replace feedstocks they can no longer raise themselves to feed the growing market for beef that their population wants. That being said, can the vegetarians in this country just stop indiscriminately attacking the raising of meat animals? I lived in the Missouri Ozarks for many years. The southern half of Missouri and extending into Kansas is one big pasture and forest with only riverbottom land suitable for crops. If we get rid of cattle, there will be NO other crop than red oak boards and cedar posts to be raised on that land. You cannot plow it without destroying it.

Not trying to hijack a post, I just don’t see any way to contact you other than through the comments. I thought you might be interested in this quote from I always admired the Cuban farmers for their resourcefulness.

“Detente has Cuban farmers dreaming of exporting pricey goods like seafood, tobacco and honey to the U.S. and raising productivity with modern seeds, fertilizer and equipment bought on credit. That’s all currently impossible under the embargo.”

Carmine, I hadn’t seen this one before. Thanks. Do you think finally that ALL of agriculture will see the light? Gene

About the same insanity as selling our Phosphorous mined in Florida to the Russians. I think they stopped that somehow. It is surface mining the soil that the hay came off of. Maybe the old commie leader was correct when he said they are counting on the capitalist to sell them the rope they hung us with?

I suspect everyone needs to learn about systems sciences (also called network or complexity science) so they could begin to see and understand the interconnectedness of all things in living systems. Export hay (or any raw product as mentioned above) is just crazy, very short-sighted.

Have you seen this Gene?

soil carbon cowboys

The hay I cut and “doodled” for my goats last summer was much better quality, even if weedier, than the hay I bought for them.

Selling raw materials like hay,logs,scrap metal,even corn and wheat instead of finished products made from these raw materials are what
3rd World or undeveloped countries have done thru history until the resource is depleted and they become poorer and poorer all the time.Gives us all an idea what our future here in the US is going to be.We sell our quality raw materials cheap and buy back junky items and poison dog food.

It’s sad that corporate America only looks at the current quarter.

If this is another set up for one of your stupid puns, I will leave this blog!

I’m finally retired, and after reading your stories about haystack building over the years, I’m looking forward to building one or more on my 7 acres of grassland. We’ve had the land 15 years and only once did we let someone hay it and remove the bales off our land. After it was gone we realized that was a really bad idea, so never again–we just have it bush-hogged and the mixed grass/weeds left as sheet compost. We live in Kentucky and almost every type of soil cataloged by the KY Geological Survey across the state has “Eroded” after it, the results of many bad farming decisions. Selling hay to China is like logging huge trees in KY or digging out coal and shipping all that elsewhere. It’s a short-term economic gain but a long-term loss to the health of our state. Thanks for a reminder, Gene, where the gold really is in farming–in the soil!

I knew I was having an impact in the grandchild education business when the 7-year-old informed one of her classmates (who was complaining about the stink), “That’s the smell of fertilizer!”

The “farmers’ doing this now were or are almost all raised in the ,”buy your fertility, the soil is just to hold the plants up” school.Since most are the “modern college educated agribusinessman”. doing things the way some of us and our grandparents did is old fashioned. When actually they are thinking like the pioneers did in which they would use up a farms natural fertility then move on to a new one.Of course there is no more new land to speak of or be discovered.With all of the land going into development now or in the future, sometimes i wonder if they are not right after all.We are killing ourselves trying to protect and improve our soils when in the not to distant future it will be housing developments or huge warehouses taking up 20-40+ acres of land to be concreted and paved over . I personally am hoping my farm will be in the family 1-2 more generations there is the possibilty in this area it could be either part of a park or a strip pit mine. We can just hope and pray that the future will know the efforts we made and appreciate us looking toward the future in trying to save and improve our soils.I guess with the cash coming back from china for our oil,steel,hay,etc we can always try to make more soil,air,water,etc .

I,bet the chinese know the value of those nutrients and apply them to their own soils.Those western farmers are being outsmarted by communist dictators.

A voice for sustainable farms…. aka.. agriculture. You and Wendell Berry.

We are essentially exporting a very rare and valuable commodity (water) in the form of a cheap product (forage.) China isn’t dumb. They realize it’s to their economic advantage to import forage rather than use their own land and their own water to grow it. Unfortunately, the US is so focused on increasing export numbers they will sacrifice anything to get there. We are, in effect, exporting our future.

Great post. We are mining our soil (and water) and sending it to another continent. Not smart.

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