Distance, order size not an issue for Brogan’s L.J. Hay

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KENSINGTON, Ohio – Forty years ago, Larry J. Brogan used a custom-built machine to make miniature bales of hay and straw ranging in size from 4 inches long to about the size of a shoe box. The bales were a hit with women, crafters, decorators and jewelers.

Today, Brogan makes bales of a more practical size – regular sized round and square bales up to the newer 3-by-3-by-8 feet big bales – and sells them to a demanding agricultural market that reaches into 33 states across the nation.

Brogan, along with his son, Tad, owns and operates L.J. Hay near Kensington, Ohio.

In on the action. Brogan’s road-side farm sign calls the operation a producer, shipper and dealer of quality alfalfa hay and straw.

“I’m a farmer and producer and I’m proud of it. I’m not a broker who has no idea about the product he’s got. I know what I sell and what I have,” Brogan said, noting his approach has been the key to success for so many years.

Brogan’s first-person style – he can be seen completing any phase of production from mowing to raking to baling – keeps him close to his product and lets him know the strengths and weaknesses of any field, he said.

Brogan also has his commercial driver’s license so he can make deliveries where there are more orders than drivers.

A carpenter by trade, Brogan has raised hay his entire life. Years ago, he ran a more traditional grain farm and liquid fertilizer plant but found his niche in growing forages.

In 1986, the farm went strictly hay, and grain bins and dryer were torn down at the farmstead to make way for a roofed bale storage area, he said.

Brogan owns and rents 2,000 acres of crop ground in five counties.

“I rent on a long-term basis. I take care of the land and farm it like I own it. If you’re good to the land, it’s good to you,” he said.

Little down time. “With growing demand, there’s never enough good quality hay,” Brogan said.

The business keeps drivers logging hundreds of thousands of miles on a fleet of 12 trucks and 24 trailers year-round. Brogan tries to maximize his mileage by hauling full loads and coordinating pick-ups and drops.

“It’s just cheaper that way. I’ve got the same fuel cost and wages no matter if I’m sending 3 tons or 30 tons,” he said.

The company philosophy is one of “no order is too big or too small.”

“They don’t raise grassy hay in Colorado or Montana, so we send trucks that way pretty often,” he said.

“Out West, hay is worth more than it is here. Some guys have large dairy herds out there, bigger than in this area, and instead of bringing the cows this way, they want the hay brought to them,” he said.

“And out there, water shortages are an unbelievably serious problem. Their water is allocated and they’ve had to cut back by 75 percent,” he said, noting the shortages there will create a higher demand for eastern-grown hay and straw.

Customer demand. Dealing with the wet weather Mother Nature provided this year, Brogan is happier than most farmers.

“I’d rather have things wet than dry. Some of the hay was damaged by the rain, but it’s not bad. Yields are enormous but as far as quality, there might be a lot to be desired,” he said.

Brogan’s crew of 12 full- and part-time employees maintain and operate a 24-foot tedder, four rakes, six wagons and three balers – round, square and big square – when the weather is good. On rainy days, the crews load semi trailers and trucks.

As with all agriculture, every year is different, and every field is different, Brogan said.

“The challenge is that there is a lot of active management involved. This business is rough, so you’ve got to pay attention. There are so many things to look at,” including seeding and hay blending, he said.

Customer demand fuels the operation’s mix of alfalfa, clover and timothy hay, and has also led L.J. Hay to produce and deal with more straw in the past several years.

Brogan said he has presold more hay and straw this year than ever before, and expects even more orders to be placed once producers find that there’s not much around.

“Hay and straw will bring good prices this year in all areas. There have been too many areas of drought or flooding extremes,” he said.

Stack and load. With the prospect of more work, Brogan struggles to find employees for the manual labor. He looks for new hires each year to help out with the baling season.

“We’re finding more and more that when you make deliveries, they’re wanting you to bring the hay, an elevator, and a crew to unload it. We just don’t have that,” he said.

Because of the farm’s location near the Columbiana-Carroll County line, in an area of rolling hills, L.J. Hay relies on human power for all stacking.

“It’s too steep here for a stacker, so these young guys have to do it all,” he said.

“In other areas, they don’t even handle the bales. I think that says a lot about how things are done here. It’s a physical labor project,” Tad Brogan said.

While the big square balers are something newer in the area, Larry Brogan said the small square bales most producers in this area are baling are in the minority. A few years back, crews baled just over 200,000 small square bales in the spring and summer months.

“We bale as many little bales as we can because they don’t make them out west, but a lot of people still like the small ones,” he said.

What it’s all about. In hay sales, it’s all about what the customer wants.

“We’ll take a load of 700 bales somewhere and that truck could be turned around and headed back out the driveway as quick as it went in. If the customer sees one small thing they don’t like, they’ll turn it away,” Brogan said.

Any hay or straw sold is subject to that scrutiny and Brogan said he takes it back if a customer isn’t satisfied.

“Most of the time I can tell what they want and I know that what I’ve got is good. But there’s always that chance,” he said.

A bale at the edge of the bottom layer of a load Tad pulled in recently had a small “mouse tunnel” along one edge. Father and son agreed that they would themselves unload the hand-stacked trailer – 720 bales – and sort each one to weed out those that might cause a load to be rejected.

The bales weeded out would then be put into an enclosed semi trailer whose contents is sold to landscapers to “blow into the mud,” Brogan said.

Out of the way. “We’ll certainly go out of our way to get and keep business. Our customers know that when they dial the phone they’re going to get good service,” Tad Brogan said.

Several customers will leave blank checks for the drivers to pick up when they drop a load, the younger Brogan said, a true sign that his father has built a solid reputation for L.J. Hay.

In addition to other dealers, their customer list has names on it like the Kentucky Derby, the old Firestone Farm, and Kenny Rogers.

Down the long road. Looking toward the pavilion-like barn just starting to fill with this year’s crop, Larry Brogan smiles and thinks of the upcoming day when he’ll turn the business over to his son.

“If I were younger, there are a few things I’d change. But I’ll let Tad handle the headaches,” he said, grinning.

“Unless something drastic happens, we’ll still be here. We’ve got the clientele built up and really enjoy what we do,” Tad said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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