By Christine Bates | email@example.com
For our Animal themed issue, Main Street interviewed Scot Galliher, the founder and owner of Silver Mountain Hay, in his 1835 house overlooking snow covered hay fields. We discovered the origin of the expression “making hay while the sun shines.”
How would you describe your business?
Silver Mountain Hay sows, harvests, and stores hay of the highest quality for horse feed. The term “hay” is actually an imprecise catchall word for many types of grasses that are fed to animals. I started the business in 2006 when I bought the 330-acre Lyle Farm when milk prices had hit a record low and the family decided to sell their dairy. Bruce and David Lyle are still farming the land they know so well. They are critical to our operation and run the business on a day-to-day basis.
Why did you become a hay farmer?
I grew up around horses and understood the importance of good feed. This part of the world is beautiful because of its history of agriculture, which is responsible for the fields and farms and open land in the valleys and trees on the hilltops. As I saw big developers buying up land I wanted to help preserve our traditional landscape. Much of my land has conservation easements to protect it forever. Agriculture keeps the wide vistas and prevents our land from growing up into forest, or becoming urban sprawl.
Did you have a business plan?
Never written down on paper. I had it in my head and knew from experience that there was a need for high quality, mold-free hay, especially in this part of the country. Did you know that there are more horses per capita in New Jersey than in any other state?
Is this a profitable business? Do you rent other farmers’ fields?
It’s only profitable because of the agricultural exemption. But unless you can be a lot bigger than Silver Mountain, it’s not a highly profitable activity. We farm about 300 total acres on four or five farms and pay no rent to the owners because of the value of the ag exemption. It lowers the property taxes that are due and lets families hold onto their land.
How do you set prices?
We set current prices based on historical prices, customer demand, and our costs. Fuel is the biggest variable and we put a surcharge on distant deliveries. We sell by the bale, not the ton. Right now our price for a 40-pound, first cut bale is $6.00.
How do you market your product? Who are your customers?
Initially we advertised in the Penny Saver. Now we have a stable, loyal customer base which buys all the hay we can grow. We no longer advertise and we don’t have a website. Our entire crop is pre-sold for the next year by October. Our hay is grown for horses and our market is pretty evenly divided between northern Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. Our range is about 60 miles from our barn.
Did the 2008 recession affect your business?
We were just getting established when the great down-turn occurred. There is definitely more demand now than six or seven years ago. People have money for horses again.
Do you grow all your own hay?
We only sell what we grow ourselves. Overall we farm 300 acres within ten miles from our barn. We sell blends of hay. About one third of our volume is high protein hay containing alfalfa and timothy grass, which is fed to working horses like polo ponies, field horses, racehorses, and brood mares. The rest of our hay contains smaller amounts of that along with native American grasses like brome and quack, which are lower in protein and fed to riding horses, the horses most people have. Feeding these horses high protein hay would make them too jumpy and difficult to handle. Most of our hay is sold in 40 pound bales tied with twine.
Is “making hay easy”? What is the process?
Well it’s easy to make bad hay. The process of harvesting hay takes three days of dry weather. Day one is mowing and crimping – cutting the stalks and then crimping them every four inches to release the moisture in the stem. The next day is tedding; a tedder has rapidly spinning tines that aerate the hay. The last day is raking the cut hay into windrows – rows of dry hay, so the baler can pick it up – and then baling. Each piece of equipment that is pulled behind a tractor costs around $25,000.
When do you harvest hay?
In late May or early June we harvest the first cutting when the seed head matures. That first cutting is full of nutrients because the plant is trying to reproduce through the seed head, and it’s made easier for the plant by snow cover in the prior winter, nature’s natural fertilizer. We cut the stalk at about four inches from the ground. When the plant recovers, usually about mid-July, we have the second cutting, which is about half the volume of the first. Sometimes there’s a third cutting in September, but we rarely get it because of weather.
Is weather your biggest challenge?
Like all farmers, weather affects us dramatically. We need three days of dry weather at the right time and the right moisture levels in the soil to harvest hay. We have to consider if there is lots of dew that will condense on the stalks. If it rains and the hay gets wet the crop is ruined. Moisture creates mold which is exothermic – that means it produces heat. I experimented by baling hay on the day it was cut without properly drying it. Within four hours the temperature inside the bale was 200 degrees, which destroys the protein in the hay.
On the other hand, if left in the field too long the UV light will break down the hay and it will turn brown. Our equipment has moisture readers, which measures the moisture in every flake of every bale of hay. If it’s much less than 10% it’s almost too dry and can hurt the horse’s mouth. If it’s over 18% it will mold. We are always checking the weather models on the Internet. Meeting demand is our other challenge. We can only meet about a third of the demand for our high quality product.
Do you plant hay?
Most of our fields are converted from corn fields and we plant specific blends to meet our customers’ needs. Grass is a perennial so you don’t need to replant it each year. If a field has been left fallow you can just mow it repeatedly and the grasses will prevail. When we seed we usually plant cover groups like oats, wheat, or barley to prevent weeds from coming up and keep the ground moist. These annual plants germinate and grow faster than the weeds and prevent them from growing.
What was the impact of last summer’s drought on your crop?
Precipitation, snow or rain, pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil as well providing moisture. Grasses need nitrogen. Lack of rain promotes the growth of broadleaved drought-resistant weeds and hinders the growth of hay.
What was your biggest surprise when you started this new business?
I was surprised at how long it takes to grow your customer base and that some very satisfied customers want to keep where they buy hay a secret to protect their own supply. Also surprising is the somewhat amusing diversity of opinions from horse owners about what is the best type of hay to feed their horse. Ask ten horse experts what constitutes the best hay and you’ll get eleven completely different answers.
What would you advise anyone thinking of going into the premium hay business?
First you need high quality, experienced employees. Any kind of farming only makes sense if you own land and can invest in the heavy equipment needed to plow, seed, harvest, and deliver. Storing high quality hay requires a large barn, which is an additional capital expense.
Was Silver Mountain Hay’s gigantic red barn built just to store hay?
I call it “my monument to agriculture.” It’s over 30,000 square feet with a 94’ unobstructed central span. The design is inspired by the classic New England expanded dairy barn, but it’s actually built as a horse facility that can be used for hay storage in the meantime. It’s large enough for 34 12’x12’ stalls and an indoor Olympic sized riding ring. We then took extra steps to make it suitable for hay storage, for example there’s a vapor barrier to protect the hay from the moisture in the ground ten inches under the dirt floor. At full capacity, we can store around 40,000 bales of hay in the barn.
Do you plan on expanding your hay making operation?
Right now we are operating at full capacity. We have the right amount of land and the right people for
the weather we have. I’m very satisfied that we can produce quality hay at a reasonable price for our customers.