Securing Your Hay Supply in a Cash Crop World

Hay has been in short supply this past year, as the dry weather reduced overall yield for forage crops across the province in 2012. However, a more permanent influence on hay supply in your area may very well be the high price of commodities such as corn, soybeans, cereals and canola. Hay has been the weak sister of the crop world, and beef farmers watch in frustration as cash croppers outbid them for rented land. Hay gets ploughed under in their "backyard", leaving beef farmers to either source hay elsewhere or sell cows.

Yet in a cash crop world, the benefit of forages in a rotation is quite evident. Nitrogen carry over, soil structure improvement, and ease of cultivation are some of the more obvious advantages. But how can a beef farmer convince his cash crop neighbour to incorporate forages in a sustainable crop rotation? Read on for an innovative marketing message.

A farmer in my area recently related the partnership he has bargained with his neighbouring cash cropper. The beef farmer provides forage seed (typically inexpensive timothy and red clover) to the cropper, who seeds it down after harvesting this year's cash crop. The beef farmer pays market rate rent for the next 2 years, and harvests the forage. At the end of the second year, the cropper plows down the forage and returns the field to cash crop production.

The beef farmer harvests a supply of high yielding, high quality forage for 2 years. The cropper reaps the benefits of forages in the rotation without having to buy seed or deal with harvesting and selling the forage, and also receives cash for the rental of the land.

What does a cropper get from growing forage?

Dr. Doug Youngblut has outlined the many advantages

  • soil structure - soil after forage is more stable. more biological activity in the soil - more roots, microbes and worms.
  • the fibrous roots give soil granular structure
  • the worms, bacteria, fungi, etc., build water stable aggregates that help stop erosion and destruction reduced crusting, compaction and runoff.
  • forage roots also create large pores (macropores) in the soil, which helps water drain away quickly.
  • tiny pores (micropores) created by organic matter in the soil aggregates help retain water during dry spells.crops after forages have more root room, as the forage roots have created channels in the soil for the crop roots to follow and explore growing forage crops breaks up disease and insect proliferation and the forages stimulate beneficial organisms to consume pathogens.
  • nutrients are more available after forages. Forages have a narrow carbon to nitrogen ratio, which increases organic activity and mineralizes nitrogen.
  • legumes fix nitrogen which leaves a residue for the next crop to use.

Cash crops such as corn will often see a 5 to 20 % yield increase when following forages. The crop farmer also benefits from the residual nitrogen effect, which can be up to $70 in the first year following legumes.

At the University of Guelph (W. Deen et al,) a 20 year study of the impact of rotation showed that growing alfalfa in a rotation provided excellent economic return as compared to other crops.

Table 1: Rotation Effects on Income

Rotation 1st year net revenue, $/ha 2nd year net revenue, $/ha 2 year total net revenue, $/ha
C-C-C-C 73 107 180
C-C-B-B 113 85 198
C-C-Brc-Brc 94 99 193
C-C-S-S 80 68 148
C-C-S-Wrc 86 89 175
C-C-A-A 112 130 242

C=Corn, B=Barley, rc=underseeded red clover, S=soybeans, W=winter wheat, A=alfalfa

The cropper gets increased yield after forages, decreased fertilizer costs of up to $70 nitrogen credits, and increased soil quality. These are some of the many benefits for the cash cropper in growing forages. But why wouldn't the cash cropper just make hay and sell it? First of all, he or she may not have the appropriate equipment. Secondly, making dry hay can be a challenge. If you as a beef farmer offer to remove any production and marketing challenges for the cropper, leaving him with only the benefits, you may score some of his cropping acres as a forage supply.

How could it work? One scenario would see you supply the grass seed for him either to plant with a cover crop or as direct seeding. You would sign a lease agreement, paying him the going rate for land rental. He would allow you to remove the forage crop, typically for two years. After that, he plows down the green crop, obtaining the benefits of the forages which are listed above.

Cost analysis

Seed costs would be approximately $30 per acre. If the deal is that the forages are put in with a cover crop the cash cropper would be spraying and fertilizing the crop in the first year. So as a beef farmer you are left with harvesting and hauling the feed, and paying rental. Harvesting costs can be around 2 cents per pound. Expected yield should be around 3 tonnes per acre. If land rent is $200 per acre, the cost for rent is 3 cents per pound of hay. Initial establishment is 0.2 cents per pound. For somewhere less than 5.5 cents per pound you have secured a forage supply, created a new partnership and developed a formula for long term sustainability in the beef industry.

Forage from this system feeds a cow for a wintering season for around $425. While this may be higher than you would like, you would hope that the forage from the cash cropper land is not all of your forage needs for the year. And it's a lot less than the cost of buying hay on the cash market.


Meyer-Aurich et al. 2006. Impact of tillage and rotation on yield and economic performance in corn based cropping system. Agron. J. 98:1204.

The Value of Forages in a High Commodity Price Environment. Doug Youngblut. Ontario Forage Council. 2012

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