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What's With All This HAY?

Photo credit: Gary Strieker

Down here in the San Luis Valley, all I see is hay. Rectangular and big round bales of hay are everywhere, in fields along the roads and stacked in sheds. 
I see hay trucks almost every time we’re on the road, and my dad gets really upset when we get behind a slow semi carrying a huge load of hay.

This got me thinking: what’s with all this HAY?

To find out more, I went to see Marvin Reynolds, the area extension director of Colorado State University for the San Luis Valley, an expert on hay. These are some of the things he told me:

• Everyone knows that hay is used as feed for livestock, but a lot of people don’t know that there are many different kinds of hay, ranging from alfalfa to clover and oat hay. Alfalfa and native grass hays are the most common in Colorado, and alfalfa is considered the highest quality.

• Hay is big business in Colorado. It’s one of the biggest crops in the state, second only to corn, totaling more than half a billion dollars a year.

• About 80 percent of the hay grown in the San Luis Valley goes to Texas and New Mexico for the dairy industry, but Colorado hay is also sent to places like Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Kentucky for horse feed.

• The hay grown in Colorado is very high quality, but its quality is sometimes too rich for animals to eat without being mixed with lower quality hay.
• If conditions are right, hay growers can cut and bale three harvests of hay in a year.

The hay market in Colorado is very active; prices of hay change every day, depending on supply and demand.

“The biggest challenge that hay growers face is probably markets, because they fluctuate quite a bit,” Reynolds says, “But water, insects, and disease are also concerns for the growers. So is the climate.”

For people who want to buy hay, the Colorado Department of Agriculture publishes the Hay Directory that lists hundreds of producers in six hay regions.

The Internet Hay Exchange lists producers offering hay bales from 50 pounds to 1900 pounds, selling for prices ranging from about 40 dollars to nearly 200 dollars a bale, depending not only on size, but also on the type and quality of hay.

Hay has always played a major role in the farming economy. Today, hay growing is more mechanized and less labor-intensive than it was years ago, when hay was gathered by hand and then stacked and stored in huge piles.

Lots of things have changed in the hay business -- in recent decades, the bales have become bigger, with a wider variety of shapes -- but hay is just as important now as it ever was.

Now I can make sense out of all the hay that I see around me. Next time we’re behind a slow hay truck, I’ll tell my dad to be more patient and appreciate the value of hay.