POWELL, Ohio – If anyone has ever set out to enter the business of farming horse hay, it certainly wasn’t Kevin Scott.
Even today, he says there are so many problems, especially with the labor supply, he isn’t sure he would recommend it to someone just starting out.
But over the last few years, Scott, who is president of the Delaware County Farm Bureau, has filled a small, but significant, niche by using available ground in Delaware County, where encroaching urban development has made traditional crop farming an increasingly endangered remnant of its rural past.
Developing a business growing and marketing hay for horses, Scott has been able to do what he has wanted to do since he was a boy – be a farmer.
And now, he says, he hardly has to go out of Delaware County, either to buy or to sell hay.
Just quality hay. Horse quality hay, Scott said, is not notably different than hay that is grown to be fed to cattle. But it is a top quality hay, fine in texture with no weeds, and soft to the feel, baled in a timely manner in traditional square bales, and tied with rope twine rather than wire.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, when it comes to horses, the best hay is not top-quality alfalfa hay, Scott said. With protein content as high as 20 percent to 24 percent, alfalfa can be far too rich for horses living the sedentary life of a standard riding horse and companion animal.
What horses want and need is grass, and it is primarily grasses and clover that Scott raises and bales in a labyrinth of disconnected fields and a multitude of landowner arrangements that he described as “having so many kinds of deals I can’t even remember them all.”
One abandoned field. It began with one field of timothy grass and clover that had been grazing pasture for a dairy farm.
A friend bought the farm for development, and needed someone to cut the field. He asked Scott, who was involved in building houses at the time, to bring in his brush hog and flatten the stuff.
But when Scott looked at it and discovered it was almost pure clover, he decided it should be baled. The fact that he owned and boarded 10 horses at the time made it look highly desirable to him.
Needed a baler. To get it out of the field, Scott had to have equipment. He bought an old John Deere 14T baler, a mower, and a 20 horsepower tractor – all for that one field of first-quality hay. He had to drop the bales in the field since he didn’t have a hay wagon.
As he was baling, however, a buyer from a Kentucky horse farm came by and bought two semi-loads from him, loading it right out of the field. And at least 35 people stopped to ask if he would bale their grass, too.
That day, Scott discovered two urgent needs – a supply of horse quality hay and finding someone to cut and bale the hay out of the many small fields that the farms were being broken into.
Horses count. Of course, Scott said, the whole thing never would have happened if he hadn’t had horses of his own. And even now, he said, horse people do tend to trust him more when they know he owns horses.
His history with horses is almost as incidental as the story of his hay business.
It started when he was a boy and a neighbor had a pony.
But that pony could not be contained, and one time it got out, the owner told the neighborhood kids that anyone who could catch the thing could have it.
Scott dutifully called his mother at work to inquire whether he could keep a free horse if he found one. Thinking there was no way he was going to find a free horse in a suburban neighborhood, she told him yes.
The horse became part of a backyard menagerie that included Labrador dogs he bred to be trained as seeing eye dogs, and 150 rabbits, all kept on a one-acre lot.
Ran to the farm. As a youth, he also worked at a neighbor’s farm. There wasn’t anything he wanted to do more when Scott was young than riding or driving a tractor.
“I couldn’t get enough. I could have lived on those machines.”
When he met his present wife, Scott already had two horses, she had a horse, and then they bought a horse together. He acquired another horse by digging a trench to help a woman wire her barn.
So with five horses to house, he and his wife rented a barn with 10 stalls, and then took in boarding horses.
He said they went into business together in that barn, he proposed to her in that barn, and they were married in that barn. But they recently had to vacate it because it, too, is being torn down for development of 12 two-acre lots that will sell for $400,000 a lot.
“You can’t have livestock on land that is worth that kind of money,” Scott said.
Business snowballed. From its beginning with one field to cut, Scott’s business of providing horse hay has snowballed.
He has continually upgraded his machinery until he is now operating with a complete line of the newest New Holland equipment.
He now farms about 500 acres. This spring he cut hay on 385 acres, and had 100 planted to soybeans and another 17 to corn. He has deals with five farmers to use their barns to store his hay.
But he doesn’t own an acre of land.
He cuts and bales hay a farmer or horse owner is growing in order to get free use of the barn. He rents land the owners want to keep in agricultural production for tax purposes. He sells hay grown by area farmers along with his.
He has deals with suburbanites who own 5 acres to use the 4 acres they don’t want to landscape, provide hay for their horses, and take the rest.
The fields range from 2 acres to 22 acres, and he said he is often cutting hay on three or four pieces of land in a day.
Paring the list. He said he has hundreds of customers, who buy anywhere from two to 1,000 bales at a time. In the last couple of years, he said, he has been eliminating boarding stables from his customer list and is concentrating on people who keep horses.
Stables, he said, want you to commit to a price in January price and want a guaranteed contract.
“If its a bad year, if there’s no rain and the second and third cutting don’t make anything, I might have to go all the way to Pennsylvania to get enough hay to fill the contract, buy it at the same price I’m selling it for, and still have to pay transportation.”
“And there’s not a whole lot of loyalty among horse people. If the next year everybody’s got hay, they’ll go down the block and get it at a cheaper price, even if you did make a sacrifice the year before.”
In the past, Scott said, he took some hay down to the Columbus zoo, and he has sold to circuses as they come through the region.
But right now he is able to sell everything he can cut to feed the horses that are close to home.
Personal service. His customers can call and get hay whenever they need it, whether it’s 100 or 1,000 bales. And if they are out and need a few bales until he can deliver it on Friday, he’s more than willing to run a few bales out to them.
“They know I’m not going to let their horses go hungry,” Scott said.
In a pinch.
If he can’t keep up with the demands of the first cutting, or if the fields are wet and the hay gets too tough before it can be cut, or if he isn’t able to get the kind of help he needs to put it up in the traditional square bales, then he can bring in the round baler he bought three years ago.
He uses it more often on the first cutting, he said, than on the second or third.
His round bales are usually bought by cattlemen, although he said he uses them to feed his own horses.
“I don’t think you always need first-quality hay,” he said. “If the hay is not quite as good, you can add a little more grain. And since my own horses don’t get ridden much, they just need something in front of them when the pasture isn’t too good. They need to have something to chew on to keep them happy.”
But when bales go for regular feed, he said, he doesn’t get anywhere near the $3 a bale he gets for horse hay.
(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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