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Hay: Marketing from El Salvador to circus elephants

Written by Christy Hemken
Basin – Having spent 25 years cubing alfalfa and selling his product to markets as far away as Japan, Fritz Schweitzer, past president of the National Hay Association, knows where to find a niche.
    Speaking at the February Big Horn Basin Forage and Irrigated Pasture Expo in Basin, Fritz said his hay project grew faster than he could handle it, but he learned to manage it and to grow it into a successful business.
    “After I got into the hay business I attended the National Hay Convention at Purdue University and when those guys found out where I was from and what I was doing, they told me they really wanted western hay,” he said. “We live in a dry climate here and can put up some of the prettiest hay you’ve ever seen.”
    “Years ago, when I got started in the business, a friend of mine said he didn’t think I’d make it unless I learned to be a little dishonest as a hay dealer,” noted Schweitzer. “But I found through there’s some great integrity amongst people in the hay industry I’ve worked with.”
    “I had hay cubes for sale the first year I was in business and a trader from Billings said he needed a container load of cubes to send to Japan,” he said. “I was a new guy and already had a market in Japan, and that’s how I got started in international marketing. I ended up marketing to 19 countries.”
    At one point in time, Schweitzer approached a Wisconsin hay dealer about shipping his cubed alfalfa to the state. “The fellow thought I was crazy wanting to ship alfalfa to Wisconsin, but we reached a point where I had shipped over 400 loads to him.”
    Schweitzer said there’s currently a farmer in Powell raising timothy hay and marketing it to racetracks in the East. “I know he’s getting at least $140 per ton, and if you add the freight to that hay, those horses eat pretty good.”
    “I don’t know if horses like that timothy any better than my high-protein alfalfa, but the trainer likes to feed it and so that’s what the horse gets to eat and that’s what you and I get to sell,” he said.
    He described timothy hay as having a really soft head, stem and leaves and being “pretty hay.”
    “The buyers really like to have the alfalfa/clover/timothy mix, but people in hell want ice water, too,” he quipped.
    “I really have stressed in my sales and marketing the protein analysis of my alfalfa,” said Schweitzer, remembering a trip in which he visited dairy producers in El Salvador. “I went down and talked protein to them and pre-shipped a container of alfalfa down. I stayed with them and we fed a herd of Holstein cows in milk production that had been bought in Wisconsin and shipped down.”
    He said the producers weren’t getting the production they wanted from the cows, but the way in which they were feeding them was unique. “They had a young boy with a machete on his belt and two oxen and a cart with wooden wheels. He’d go out to cut grass all day and he’d come back at night with a haystack on wheels and that’s what they were feeding them, and there wasn’t three percent protein in the whole wagonload.”
    After feeding the cows Schweiter’s alfalfa cubes for 30 days, the cows gained three pounds of weight and increased their butterfat content to more than double what they had to begin with.
    “In this modern world there are new management tools and machinery to use. If you can budget that machinery out with the marketing of the alfalfa, I think you ought to go for it,” said Schweitzer of producing high-quality hay. “Quality production makes your mechanical systems most cost-effective.”
    “Premium alfalfa needs to be clean alfalfa,” he said. “The buyers would like for you to cut your alfalfa in late bud or early bloom – they’re not interested in seeing purple flowers. The buyer wants protein. If he wants flowers, he’ll go to the florist shop.”
    “The flowers aren’t bad, the cows will eat them,” he added, “but if you’ve got flowers you’ve got large stems. If the ratio between stems and leaves - which are where the protein is - is off balance, the protein goes way down. That’s why they want an early cut of alfalfa.”
    Schweitzer said that although harvesting and marketing premium hay is the goal, there has to be a market for the other hay. “You can’t produce all your hay to look pretty. There’s got to be a market for off-quality hay, and I found markets.”
    One such market was the Ringling Brothers Circus, which wanted coarse hay with a lot of roughage to feed to their elephants. “When we’d get a load of rough hay I’d call Ringling Brothers. Occasionally they’d ask for some bags of cubes for llamas and maybe the next trip I’d send some bales of bedding straw and sometimes I’d go up into Montana and bag sawdust - and we literally bagged it with scoop shovels - for their lions and tigers. You never know where there’s a market for our products.”
    Schweitzer also said he bought a bunch of Mexican roping steers that he’d lease to cowboys in the summer and in the winter he’d feed them waste hay.
    “There’s markets for all kinds of hay,” he said. “The buyers will not pay a premium price if you don’t have a premium alfalfa.”
    “There is an unlimited market for hay,” he continued. “There’s a drought somewhere in the nation every year and if you stay in touch with USDA they’ll tell you where they’re needing alfalfa really bad.”
    “I really had a lot of fun in the industry,” he summarized. “I traveled 19 countries and all over the United States. When you’re young and energetic, there are all kinds of things you can accomplish.”