The Ontario Forage Expo is one of my favourite farm events of the year.
It’s outside, in the heat of the summer, it’s usually well attended and there’s lots of equipment to look at. Haybines, rakes, tedders, balers of all sorts and forage equipment are all working in the field at this event, which means an overall scent of fresh-cut and fresh-baled hay, which makes everyone happier.
The event, put on once in western and once in eastern Ontario each year, is managed by the Ontario Forage Council and involves the local soil and crop improvement association.
An event of this scale helps keep the pedal on the gas relating to hay. It helps to keep Ontario’s largest acreage crop (if you include hay land and pasture) in the public eye and that’s a good thing.
We could all use more hay in production in Ontario. Hay acreage has declined along with the beef cow herd, and especially when crop prices hit strong highs five to 10 years ago and hay land was planted with row crops.
Forages are a good alternative market for crop farmers that helps diversify market risk away from corn, soybeans and wheat, the prices for which are set globally and, as we know this past year, are too influenced by geopolitical events and the whims of presidents of other countries.
There’s no doubt hay price is influenced by global market forces and events around the world. The widening of the Panama Canal, leading to lower shipping costs for Ontario hay, combined with water restrictions in the Middle East are the two largest factors in the opening of more markets to Ontario growers.
But hay price is most influenced by local factors. The price of corn is set at the Chicago board of trade and every corn farmer in North American gets that price, plus or minus a basis. The price of hay is much more influenced by local factors, mostly weather affecting local demand.
A local market that influences prices means there’s enough demand in the area to form a price. It also highlights one of the several reasons that hay acreage is pretty stagnant in the province. Producing quality hay is influenced by weather perhaps more than any other crop.
Most farmers have lost hay crops, had to blow it back on the field or sell the bales for salvage rate to a use other than animal feed. The conditions have to be perfect to make dry hay.
It’s an area that’s been begging for a technological solution – and some have arrived. At one end, there’s way less hay that’s baled dry. Most dairy and beef farms take it off as haylage, and the ability to wrap wet hay has been a god-send for many farmers. The efficiency of hay harvest is extraordinarily improved compared to 30 years ago. I spent many an hour in my early teens piling hay on wagons. I had visions of learning to balance on a bouncing wagon helping my hockey career – but it obviously didn’t help that much. We moved quickly to a bale thrower and then as my brothers and I left for school, the hay system again shifted to large square bales. The reduction in labour to handle 1000 small squares compared to the equivalent tonnage in large squares is impressive.
At the other end of the spectrum Ontario innovators like the Martin brothers who developed the Chinook bale dryer are helping to drive the next level of change into hay production. Dryer hay is needed in order to fill export markets.
As Ray Robertson of the Ontario Forage Council told me at this year’s expo, we dry corn as a necessary step to creating the highest quality product. Why wouldn’t we dry hay?
The next step is a hay compactor in southern Ontario – the major goal of the Ontario Hay Co-operative. A compactor is direly needed, and at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, someone just needs to get it built, whether it is the hay co-op (which continues to look for members) or a private company.
Then there’s the soil health benefits to including hay production in a rotation. Perennial legumes and grasses are great for the soil, adding organic matter, through year over year root mass growth. You don’t have to plant it every year.
I know it means more equipment, but haybines and rakes are less expensive machinery than planters and combines and with the number of custom balers and forage harvesters in the countryside, I have to think there’s more opportunity to expand hay acreage on some of the corn, soybean and wheat acres grown in Ontario.
Hay needs to be brought out of the shadows as a marginal cover crop, and the Forage Expo continues to be a catalyst to show the possibilities.
In my previous editorial I talked about the pending closure of my local farm supplier co-op store in Parkhill. A last minute reprieve means the store remains open until further notice.