There's a world of new technology out there. And a group of Iowa producers is using strategic buying habits to take on the world. The group recently bought hay-testing equipment normally found only in commercial crop-testing labs, for example. This new equipment adds speed and accuracy to the group's hay-production operation, which was the first in the U.S. to use new European hay-drying technology, too.

Farm Partners Supply, Harlan, IA, is a group of more than 30 agricultural producers who share their time and talents to produce world-class hay, corn and soybeans. The producers set aggressive goals and then gather information, test theories and experiment with new ideas.

A board of directors approves purchases, but most of the purchasing decisions for the hay production side of the business are driven by hay operations managers Joe Heese and Ben Puck.

Farm Partners Supply is a limited liability company started by six founding partners in 2003. To be a partner in the group, a producer must have equity of at least $10,000. Farm Partners Supply owns the equipment, and the land is farmed as a unit. The group is committed to helping young people get started in farming, so younger farmers can buy into the group gradually. Members of the group receive payback according to the percentage of the company they own.

While striving to produce a high percentage of world-class alfalfa, Heese and Puck are always on the lookout for technologies that can help maximize profits. During the next five years, the group hopes to be the largest seller of world-class alfalfa east of the Missouri River. “We are going to have cut and baled more than 9,000 acres of hay this year,” Puck explains. “When it comes to making buying decisions for our operation, we are looking for relationships. We want a win-win situation with our vendors because we are going to count on each other both for good prices and good knowledge. We are looking for suppliers who understand what we do, support what we do and have similar philosophies.”

NIRS forage analyzer

The group's relationships with suppliers are crucial when it comes time for it to make big purchases and evaluate new technology. The group bought a near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) forage analyzer from Perten Instruments to help provide speedier answers to hay-quality questions. Dairyland Laboratories helped Heese research testing equipment, and Perten Instruments assisted him in getting the new equipment set up correctly. Terry Allen, regional manager for Perten Instruments North America, came to the site and helped Heese learn how to use the equipment.

The NIRS machine serves as a helpful tool when it comes to quickly testing hay quality. Heese wanted to be able to pinpoint the exact cutting time for each hay field, in addition to determining moisture, protein, acid detergent fiber (ADF), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), calcium and phosphorus levels for the hay as soon as possible.

Heese says the NIRS analyzer showed a need for changes in cutting schedules. “The NIRS test results showed some fields should be cut around day 21 because of highly fertile soils, instead of within a more traditional 26- to 28-day cutting window,” he says.

Farm Partners Supply is assured it is meeting customer quality specifications on each load of hay before it sends it out, thanks to the testing technology. “We want to give our customers the exact analysis of what they are buying,” Heese says. “We can test each load and we can test each bale. This is a helpful service we can provide our customers at no additional cost.”

The analysis procedure involves drying the hay sample before grinding it into a very fine powder. The ground hay is placed in an open-faced sample dish and loaded into the analyzer. Nutrient composition of the sample is determined in 6 seconds.

The NIRS instrument footprint is 18 in. deep × 18 in. high × 14 in. wide. “The DA7200 NIRS forage analyzer purchased by Farm Partners Supply is designed to be used anywhere you would put a computer,” Allen explains.

He says it is still rare for the machines, which sell in the ballpark of $50,000, to be used outside of commercial crop-testing laboratories. However, he adds that an NIRS machine could be a good fit for progressive dairy or beef producers with large operations who might be producing or feeding hay on a larger scale.

Hay dryers

After facing a wet, miserable hay-producing year in 2004, the group held a brainstorming session to identify ways to improve the chances for successful hay production and marketing in the future. While trying to produce more dairy-quality hay in spite of challenging weather conditions, the group decided to purchase six, propane-powered hay dryers in 2005.

Farm Partners Supply was the first North American purchaser of a new hay dryer created by an Italian company. Veda Farming Solutions, holder of the North American patent on the dryers, worked to modify the dryers for the Farm Partners Supply operation.

A burner in each dryer heats air up to 130°F. A fan blows the air through a series of tunnels to dry the hay. Each dryer is capable of drying 18 bales (each 3 × 3 × 8 ft.) at one time, for a total capacity of 108 bales. The dryers help produce hay with good leaf retention and color, aiming for the main goal of retaining maximum feed value by killing harmful mycotoxins. Hay can be put into the dryers at 20 to 25% moisture and dried down to 10% moisture, for example.

The dryers purchased by Farm Partners Supply cost in the neighborhood of $69,000 for each 18-bale module. According to Davide Verardi of Veda Farming Solutions, the company sells dryers by the module. Price is determined according to the size of bales and number of modules. Models are available to accommodate big square or round bales, with prices ranging from $39,000 to $120,000.

Cutter Test Day

Heese and Puck are continually seeking consistency when harvesting their hay. Last year they invited neighbors and equipment dealers to a Cutter Test Day. Equipment from different dealers was set up, side by side, and then the hay was cut once down the field and back. Every windrow was tested for Relative Feed Value (RFV) at 24-hour intervals. Moisture also was tested because drydown time is crucial when it comes to making quality hay. Heese and Puck were pleasantly surprised to find their current equipment performed best.

Heese says the group has tried to look at every part of the hay-making process. “When we conducted our cutting tests, we looked at which machine helps us make the highest-quality hay,” he says. The group wants to conduct similar tests with different types of balers. It tends to own its own equipment, but it considers the most cost-effective way of getting the job done before making any purchase. “We look at all options before making the decision to own or lease a particular piece of equipment,” Heese says.

The group would like the majority of the hay produced to reach dairy-quality levels. It aims for around 175 to 200 RFV product. In addition to selling to dairy customers, Farm Partners Supply sells horse and beef cow hay. The group has customers who live just two miles from the operation and some who live as far away as Texas.

“Art and science work together in hay production,” Puck says. “The challenge is to be creative enough to sit down with both. We are continually learning and trying to gather more information. Right now we are working on learning more about mergers, cutters, raking technology and preservatives. There are lots of things on the table.”