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A Mitchell farmer focuses on forage and he's adapted to climate change by putting up baleage. You won't believe his niche market either!

June 1, 2016

4 Min Read

I spent some time this week at the Olsen Family Hay Production farm near Mitchell, S.D.

Larry Olsen was in the middle of his first cutting, which had come on two weeks earlier than normal. With all the recent rain, Olsen says he expects to see a good second and third cutting, too.

Olsen has a unique hay business. He produces baleage for dairies. Making high moisture baleage (30-50% moisture) eliminates nearly all chances of weather damage, he says, which has been an increasing problem in central South Dakota.

“I don’t remember ever having such high humidity,” he says.

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The forage quality and palatability increases with the fermentation that occurs in the plastic wrapped bales. Some of his best baleage has had a relative feed value of 200+ and total digestible nutrients of more than 80%. The Brix level (sugar content) is in the 12-15 range.

Olsen’s best baleage – “rocket fuel,” he calls it -- is currently being fed to dairy goats in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

“People think goats will eat anything – tin cans – even,” he says. “But goats really like high quality forage, and dairy goats really produce a lot of milk on our baleage.”

Olsen also produces grass hay for horses and dry hay for cattle.

A third generation farmer, Olsen began focusing on forage exclusively about eight years ago. His row crop farming equipment needed upgrading and he was running short of help during planting and harvesting. Grain farming was also cutting into his other business – trucking.

Hay has proved to be a better fit. He likes getting out on the road and he delivers a lot his own hay. He back hauls product from the east and southeast, where a lot of his hay goes, to the Midwest. He also likes knowing his customers personally.

“It’s rewarding to be part of their operations,” he says.

The premiums for high quality hay aren’t bad either.

“It’s not like taking corn to the elevator, where you corn is just like everybody else’s,” Olson says.

But there are ups and downs in the business. Low milk prices can mean low dairy hay prices. When there’s a lot of hay produced throughout the country it is tougher to find a market. Olsen has several hay sheds in which to store dry hay, which helps him ride out market lulls.

Baleage isn’t the only thing that sets Olsen’s hay part. He doesn’t use conventional fertilizers. Instead, applies high grade calcium and phosphorous products, sugar and fish fertilizer.

“It’s not organic,” he says, “but it’s as close as want to get right now.”

He says the fertilizer products make the plants healthier and increase the baleage feed value.

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