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Growing top-quality hay in burgeoning market

Hay is for horses. Well, top quality hay, to be more exact, brings a good price from the Southwest's growing equine industry.

“There just seems to be more horses in Texas than there used to be,” says Del Rey Reichenau, who raises hay on some 700 acres of land near Mason, Texas.

Reichenau and a partner manage Haymakers, a business they started in 1978 to tap into that growing enthusiasm for horses. They irrigate 200 acres of coastal bermudagrass and put it up in square bales.

“We get good, high quality hay off irrigated land,” Reichenau says. “That's our horse hay. We usually sell 80,000 square bales all over Texas, into New Mexico and over to the Louisiana state line. We don't sell much in South Texas but 35,000 to 40,000 bales go into San Angelo.”

Dryland hay goes mostly for cattle, including Reichenau's own cow-calf operation. They put most dryland production into large (up to 1500 pounds) round bales. “We have a few customers who buy good quality hay in round bales for horses,” he says, “but most of the dryland production goes to cattlemen. We usually put up 1,000 to 1,500 round bales.”

The horse hay gets special attention, including extra fertilization, a pre-cutting to clean the crop up, frequent irrigation and a thorough weed control program.

“We irrigate all summer,” Reichenau says. “We'll get three cuttings and we'll irrigate after each one as needed, depending on rainfall.”

He uses two center pivots and side-row watering. “I'd like to have all pivot irrigation, but I also farm peanuts and corn and have pivots on that acreage. I grow hay mostly on oddly shaped fields that will not adapt to center pivot irrigation. Side-row irrigation is not as efficient as pivots, but water cost has been reasonable here. We grow good hay with either system.”

Production ranges from eight to ten tons per acre on irrigated hay, three to five tons on dryland. “Rainfall is up and down so it's hard to predict what dryland will do,” Reichenau says. “Also, we lose some quality in dryland production.”

He says horse owners demand near weed-free hay and he's especially cautious about grass burr. “Grass burrs will ruin us,” he says, “It only takes one or two.”

He says a reputation for quality spreads and allowing grass burrs to slip into his hay will tarnish that reputation and could mean lost customers.

“We start weed control activity in late winter. By the first of March or late in February we'll spray winter weeds with Roundup and Fuego. We may mix in a little nitrogen just to make the herbicides work better.

“We also apply Amber and 2,4-D. If we have fields with grass burr, we use Plateau in late April or early May. Rate depends on how bad the problem looks. We may get by sometimes with a half rate but on a new field, with heavy grass burr populations we need a full rate. We have some sandy soils where grass burrs can be troublesome.

“We often use a full rate for the first application and a half rate for a second. After that we can clean up escapes with spot treatments from a four-wheeler.

“Controlling weeds is absolutley7 crucial to producing high quality hay,” he says. “Fortunately, we have good materials to clean up our weed problems. Roundup and Fuego do a good job of keeping weeds from getting big enough to get into our first hay cutting.”

He says Amber provides good residual activity. “And after our first cutting, the fields are clean and we have no more weed problems. Plateau is a contact material with residual activity, up to 90 days. It needs some moisture to incorporate into the soil.”

Delayed cutting also helps manage weeds. “Some hay producers make their first cutting around May 15. We wait until the first of June for our first good cutting.”

Instead, he cuts with a shredder early in May. “We grind it all up to remove any weeds that escaped our herbicide program. We also run over the field with a four-wheeler before we cut for hay to make certain no grass burrs remain.”

Reichenau begins his fertilization program in May. “I fertilize everything as if we were going to irrigate it, even the dryland acreage. Then I fertilize the irrigated hay every 30 days during the growing season with a 95-40-80 analysis.”

Except for the bit of nitrogen he adds with winter herbicides, Reichenau rarely fertilizes any dryland hay before May 10 or irrigated before May 1. Dryland gets only one fertilization per year.

He tries to cut dryland hay in early July and may get another cutting into August “if we get some showers.”

Reichenau says he ran out of hay late in 2003. “We could have sold more.”

But he admits that increasing production capacity could require more expense and aggravation than he wants to deal with. “We're limited to what we can do with one truck and one trailer. We're doing about all we can without adding a baling crew.”

He says hay production demands equipment and facilities.

“We have to have a storage barn to stay in the hay business,” he says. “It took a while to build up our customer base, but our business has grown every year.”

Reichenau says irrigated coastal bermudagrass is “right up there with peanuts.”

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