Specialty Markets: Nieslanik family targets hay markets in production
Cokeville – When Scott and Diane Nieslanik moved to Cokeville 15 years ago, both had a background in raising cattle, and they were looking to continue ranching.
“We ranched and farmed in Carbondale, Colo.,” explains Scott, “but we needed to expand. With urban development down there, we decided to get out.”
Scott’s family farms, ranches and runs a dairy in the Colorado town, which sits just south of Aspen.
“It was hard for us to leave because our family is down there,” Diane says. “But if we were going to ranch, we wanted to move to a ranching community.”
On moving to Cokeville, the family ran a large herd of cows and was raising three children under the age of five.
“Cattle prices were low, and bank payments were high,” comments Scott of their first few years. “We looked at it and decided to put the ranch up for sale.”
A neighbor wanted to buy the cows and rangeland, but had no interest in the hay meadows, so the family took the deal, keeping the hay ground.
Scott also worked to run another ranch in Border, while Diane irrigated their hay meadows. The Nieslaniks sold their hay on the stump.
When Scott’s employers decided to sell, he returned to their property in Cokeville, and the couple decided to build a house and develop their hay operation.
Making a change
“The biggest change that got us to where we are today was getting away from the cow operation,” comments Diane. “It was huge, because Scott grew up with cows his whole life. It was a hard decision to make.”
In order to stabilize their financial situation and develop a feasible operation, they began to focus on growing and putting up hay, a process they were familiar with, but on a different scale.
Diane adds, “The biggest change for us was getting into the small bales.”
“We’ve always sold hay,” comments Scott, “but when I left Colorado, I swore I’d never put up small bales again. We ended up buying small balers because it’s a niche market.”
“We stumbled into a specialty market, instead of just raising hay,” Diane explains. “A local trucker started hauling hay, and he hooked us up with a buyer in Florida that raises race horses. We started tweaking our hay specifically for these horse producers.”
Because the horse industry is more particular about the hay they buy and feed, Scott notes that they work to provide consistent, quality hay and to target each customer’s needs.
Meeting consumer needs
“Everyone wants something different, so we have different mixes for the different people,” Diane says.
They have transported hay across the country, from Florida to New York, and today, they load containers, which are shipped by train to customers.
With their specialty hay being delivered across the country, Diane says it is important to get the hay quality exactly right.
“One thing people don’t understand it that there is a lot of difference between good hay, decent hay and poor hay,” explains Scott. “It is how you put it up and how you raise it.”
In order to achieve “perfect hay,” they have baled whenever conditions were right, whether that meant baling hay at eight in the morning or 11 o’clock at night.
“There is a short window of time to get it right,” Scott says.
Diane also adds that the quality of their hay is important, and to emphasize their commitment to quality, they guarantee their hay.
“If someone gets a bad bale, we take it back or give them their money back,” explains Diane. “It’s a lot of expense for trucking hay, and we stand behind our bales.”
Additionally, when sending hay to customers, Scott pays careful attention to watch the quality of the hay that is loaded on trucks or in containers.
“I know where I’ve stacked some hay I’m unsure about, and we don’t send the bottom bales,” he explains. “They go off to the side, and we sell them locally to cattle producers.”
Trial and error
In developing the operation, the Nieslaniks note they have tried lots of techniques to find what is right.
“We’ve tried a lot of funky stuff over the years,” comments Diane, laughing. “I’m sure our neighbors think we are crazy.”
For example, when they were having problems with pests and not seeing results from pesticides, Scott and Diane invested in ladybugs. They also handpicked weeds from some of their fields with the help of local youth when herbicides were ineffective.
“It’s trial and error,” says Scott. “The soil on each piece of ground is different, and it’s been hard, but I’ve figured things out.”
He adds that production has increased on the property from barely 1.5 tons of hay per acre to over four tons per acre in some fields.
“I experiment a bit, here and there,” Scott says. “We are always trying to keep on top of what people want.”
Family and community
Beyond producing high quality hay, Scott and Diane have stayed in the agriculture industry because of the family and community aspects of the industry. They have raised three children on their operation.
Currently, Luke, 19, is attending the University of Wyoming studying agriculture. He works on the farm at home during the summer. Daughter Jessica, 20, is married and seeking her engineering degree in Boise, Idaho.
“We only have Hannah left at home,” says Diane. “She helps out in the balers and moving pipe.”
“Our biggest thing was we wanted to raise our kids on a ranch and in this lifestyle, because it raises good children who grow up to be good adults,” she continues.
Scott adds, “It teaches them responsibility and work ethic.”
By involving their children in every aspect of the operation, teaching them about safety and even the finances, the Nieslaniks have worked hard to instill a love of agriculture in their children.
“Making the crossover to a hay operation, going into a specialty market, finding clientele and taking care of them is the best thing we ever did,” Diane says. “We live a life that most people would give anything to live. This is the life we want to live, and we are living the dream.”