Exports increasingly help set a floor for this high-quality feed, but timing is still the key.
When it comes to markets, Steven Bales knows his: the three-string alfalfa hay bale. In a typical year, the Buckeye, Arizona, farmer sells 25,000 to 30,000 tons of these 95-pound bales, mostly to the equine market. Timing is everything.
"Between May and September, I'm storing more than I'm selling. We have a lot of money going out during those months. They are the lowest for cash-flow. But, it's all by design," he says. The operation's investment in storage barns allows them to hold hay and sell the high-quality hay when the market is at its peak.
There are constant challenges here, however, including labor, water, equipment and urban sprawl. The Baleses have gone at the labor issue head-on, advertising for workers and reaching out to local high school FFA chapters. But, physically demanding work like this can make it tough to keep workers. "It's all hand-loaded. It's hard work. And, it's hot here," Bales says. They've considered ways to limit manpower with equipment shifts or by producing different-sized hay bales. But, the producer says they want to stay loyal to what buyers want, and for now, that seems to be the three-string bales.
Looking ahead, Bales says prices this season are mid-level, at $165 to $190 per ton. He notes alfalfa hay prices are largely based on anecdotal market reports with a fairly subjective identification system in regard to quality.
"For us, the opportunity comes in timing and storage capacity. We know if we can have premium hay available at the right time, we can see a premium on the top end of the market. Last year, we saw some premiums in the $20 to $30 range. It's always going to be about supply and demand, but it's also about having the hay available when people need it."
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