The Downside of Lower Feed Prices

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Just about every farm or ranch with livestock uses some hay. Hay is a crop that's grown, cut, and cured by drying in the sun and then bundled, bailed, and stored for later use as animal feed. It can be made from many different types of legumes or grasses, including alfalfa, rye, oats, or just meadow grasses.

Hay is like food that's been put up in canning jars or fruit that's been dried. It's essential for keeping animals fed and in good condition in the lean times. In cooler climates, that's winter. In warmer climates, that's the dry season. (Straw, by contrast, is dried stalks of grasses whose seeds have been harvested. It has little nutritive value and is usually used as bedding rather than feed, except when chopped to provide fiber and mixed with nutritious feeds.)

Many farms and ranches grow their own hay, but others must buy it because their land is insufficient or lacks one of the essential characteristics for growing hay. The decision about the quantity of hay to buy is always a tough one. On the one hand, you want to make sure you've secured enough to get your livestock safely through the lean period. You don't want to risk malnutrition or having to sell animals because the weather has gone against you and you're running out of feed.

Although we will benefit from the lower hay cost, we're not really celebrating it. Hay is less expensive now because the dairymen in the west are experiencing hard times.

On the other hand, you don't want to overbuy, because then your money is tied up in hay that could've gone for something else. For most farms, that sort of overspending is a luxury they simply cannot afford. That said, having hay left over at the end of the winter is always a great feeling. It is like finding an unexpected balance in your savings account. It can help you get through the next year profitably and with less anxiety.

On our ranch, we buy hay annually, around this time of year. We raise only grass and animals, no cultivated or planted crops. This is largely because we have little topsoil and not much heat or water during the growing season when the days are long. We also don't have all of the expensive specialized farm equipment needed to plant and harvest hay and other crops. All we need is grazing animals to harvest the naturally occurring grasses on our ranch and a little hay grown down the road to sustain them through difficult times. (We do have gardens and an orchard, but only for our own consumption). So, over the past few weeks we've been mulling over the right quantity of hay to buy this year.

Our decision will be based on several factors. For one, our prediction of how the grasses will hold out through the dry season (which is connected to the weather we've had and will have in the coming months). Because we've been in a drought, we'll need more hay than we would in years with better rainfall. On the other hand, some unexpected May rains a few weeks ago have been helpful in extending the life of our pastures.

Additionally, we'll consider the number and type of animals we have now. Mature cattle can do well on comparatively poor feed. The same is true for calves not yet weaned from their mothers. They're getting the nutrition they need from mother's milk. Weaned calves, on the other hand, need high-quality feed at all times, because, like teenagers, they are growing like weeds and no longer have the benefit of their mothers' milk.

In another week or so we'll weigh all these factors, come up with a number, and place our hay order. Then we'll keep our fingers crossed. The hay will be delivered within a week or so, and our barn will once again be full to the rafters with sweet-smelling alfalfa.

This year we plan on buying extra hay, because it's cheaper than last year (by about 40 percent!) and alfalfa, unlike grain hay, does not get eaten or spoiled by rodents over time. Although we will benefit greatly from the lower hay cost, we're not really celebrating it. Hay is so much less expensive now because the dairymen in the west are experiencing really hard times. They're cutting back on all of their purchases since it currently costs more to produce milk than what they receive for it. There is a direct correlation between the milk production and the amount of high-quality alfalfa fed to dairy cows. The dairymen are just trying to keep their cows producing milk, rather than peak performance, which just drives them deeper into the red.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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