FROM the sidelines, agricultural commentators often ponder why Australian croppers do not produce more hay.
It offers logistical benefits in lessening the pressure at grain harvest, it is a sound risk management strategy as it does not require spring rain and it offers a non-chemical means of weed control.
However, at a practical level, many farmers quickly find out hay production is a demanding science and elect to stick to pure grain production.
Sam Ellis, who is a former quality assurance co-ordinator for Victorian hay processer, Gilmac Pty Ltd, said the key to successful hay production was attention to detail.
“There are people out there producing hay and doing it very well,” Mr Ellis said.
“However, the key trait all successful hay producers have in common is that they take it seriously – it is not just something done as an afterthought.”
Mr Ellis said export hay markets were continuing to grow with China emerging as a home for Australia oaten hay, along with traditional destinations such as Japan and Korea.
He said farmers had to be aware of stringent quality standards if they hoped to develop an export hay business.
With these requirements Mr Ellis said if farmers wanted to gain access to export, as well as domestic hay markets, a shed was critical.
“The first thing I would recommend for someone looking to get into hay in a serious way would be to make the investment in a hay shed,” he said.
“A shed can help protect against fluctuations in the hay market, it protects against quality downgrading, allowing you to store your hay for a longer period of time.”
Mr Ellis said the export market had strict requirements in terms of feed test value and visual grading.
“Hay that isn’t stored in a shed will not meet export standards if it has been rain damaged.
“It is very hard to keep hay under 14 per cent moisture if it isn’t stored in a shed.”
In order to successfully grow hay, Mr Ellis urged growers to not bite off more than they could chew.
“Don’t try and produce more hay that what you can produce well – the temptation can be there to cut more hay but if you cut corners you will inevitably see a sharp discount in prices.”
However Mr Ellis said the export market was a much more reliable destination than the boom-or-bust domestic market.
“Export hay demand is a lot more consistent than that for domestic hay, where demand is largely determined by the weather in south-eastern Australia.
“Making hay is labour intensive process, but if you do it right, export can be very profitable in terms of gross margins and a good risk management tool, minimising exposure to dry springs.”
The export industry continues to grow sharply, from around 100,000 tonnes in 1988 to more than 900,000 tonnes in 2015, the last full year for data.
Mr Ellis said volume was always king in terms of gross margins per hectare, but those who did hay well were conscious of both quality and quantity.
“People might sow early looking for a big crop and find that the feed tests aren’t as good reducing price per tonne,” he said.
“Sowing at the right time and cutting early to optimise quality can definitely pay off by producing a quality product.
“Getting moisture down is critical too, export hay must be below 14 per cent moisture.
“The temptation is there when the hay is on the ground and there is rain approaching to get in and bale too quickly.
“Rushing in can mean you bale with high moisture levels and you’ll miss out on potential export markets as a result.”