Sluggish hay sales hit farmers

  • Cows enjoy a meal of hay. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Some farmers fear that even the secondary income that haymaking provides may be fading, along with the cow herds it once fed. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2019 11:08:01 PM

SHELBURNE — “Make hay while the sun shines,” goes the adage. But, with the sunniest days long gone for dairy farmers, some fear that even the secondary income that haymaking provides may be fading, along with the cow herds it once fed.

Dairy farmer Peter Williams ended up dumping about 160 bales of hay in the pasture last year — worth about $8,000 — and has watched it rotting, the result of a declining market as surrounding beef, dairy and horse farms that were his customers have cut back.

Williams says he lost three “very big, good customers” for his surplus hay, partially as a result of farms that have gone out of business. The result is a loss of “butter and egg money” that he’s come to rely on, especially as the price of milk farmers get for milk has dropped.

“It’s kind of a heartbreaker to be dumping what we did,” said Williams, whose Mapledge Farm’s 35-cow milking herd is down by five or 10 Jerseys from typical, in part because the price of milk is so low. Other farmers around the region who have felt the squeeze for prices — like Norman Davenport, further up the hill —  have sold off their herds, reducing the demand for hay, which is grass that’s been cut and dried for feeding the animals.

“There’s only so much storage available,” Williams says, so what’s left after his hay barn is filled with about 100 tons, he sells. “The big customers take it out of the field. But they’re not there anymore.”

Davenport, who sold off his 50-cow herd in 2005 and has typically depended on hay sales, sugaring and logging — which has also taken a hit because of a wooly adelgid infestation of his hemlock — says, “These are all secondary incomes from a dairy farm operation. If you have a primary business that pays the bills, then you could have a secondary business of sugaring, and yeah, it pays the bills and generates an income. But if you remove that primary income source, which was dairying, it just doesn’t generate the gross income to cover the costs of property ownership.”

That raises serious questions for Davenport, whose family has owned the 365-acre farm in Shelburne’s Patten District for more than a century, but who now has had to resort to working for an excavating company to make ends meet.

“What else would you do with the land? It’s not so much driven by the economics of hay farming; it’s an alternative, other than burning it for fuel or to bush hog the ground. It’s not like there’s a market out there for hay. The only reason they’re making the hay is for land manage ment, with the hope of getting so me kind income for it, but the return on a bale of hay is not worth the equipment you’re wearing out to make it.”

As costs have increased, the price of hay has remained stagnant for years, says Davenport, who collects about $60 for each round bale. There’s still a market at Southeastern Massachusetts horse farms, he says, but the price doesn’t justify trucking costs.

“Those people who own horses are equestrians, and they don’t have the acres or the equipment to put up winter feed,” he says, adding that around here, there are plenty of former horse sheds that now stand empty because many people can’t afford to deal with the added expense of keeping a horse. Without a dairying operation on his 50 to 60 acres of open land, Davenport says, “It’s very much a hand-to-mouth, day-to-day operation with no spending capital. Every bit of income is spent on fixed costs, one way or another.”

He can make about 10 bales per acre, he says.

Meanwhile, in Conway, Jason Silverman says he hasn’t had much difficulty finding customers for the roughly 5,000 rectangular bales that he cuts off 35 acres he leases, although most of those are picked up by farmers.

About a glut of hay, says Silverman, who works for Land For Good, a nonprofit organization that tries to link new farmers with available land, “I’ve been hearing mutterings about it, and I’m scratching my head. Certainly a lot of dairy farms are closing up, switching from dairying to making hay, because they have that equipment, anyway. But, New England has been a net importer of hay for the last several decades, with tractor-trailer loads coming in from Canada, as well as from New York and Pennsylvania.”

Silverman turns to mostly small goat dairies, sheep farms and small homesteading operations that he markets to by word of mouth, Facebook and Craigslist.

Cris Coffin, policy director for the Keene, N.H. organization, said she’s heard only anecdotally that the hay market has been “squishy the last couple of years,” but adds, “I think it’s important. It does raise the question, as the number of dairy farms continues to decline around New England — What happens to all of this land that’s available for hay?”

The answer could come as the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its five-year Census of Agriculture from 2017 in the weeks and months ahead.


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