Mitch Larsen, 24, of Viborg, S.D., has found a way to supplement his farm income.
He’s in the custom hay business, which keeps him busy year-round as he and his family also feed about 800 to 1,000 head of cattle and raise soybeans and corn on about 1,800 acres.
“It’s a really nice cash flow for me,” he said. “It’s nice income over the winter and another way to make money, which is nice.”
The diesel mechanics graduate of Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D., started in the business in 2006. He and his brother, Scott, bought their first round baler after nearby friends, Scott and Chad Nelsen, got him interested in the custom business when he was a senior in high school. The brothers hired him to haul hay and he’s stuck with it ever since.
He works with Scott, 27, and his dad, Wayne, in the Larsen Farms operation and hires two high school students during the summer when he harvests his two quarter-sections of hayland and does custom work on other area farms, too.
His custom work is done mostly in the area, going as far south as Yankton, S.D., and as far west as Menno. Lately, his favored job has been where the producer cuts the hay, then he buys it from them in the windrow by the ton, and bales and hauls it.
Besides the 1,000 tons he bales per year on his family’s operation, he estimates he bales about 3,000 tons in a year.
“It depends on the crop,” he said.
Last year was an excellent one on his land, although some area farmers had tougher luck, but not as tough as in the drought-stricken South.
He said the amount of hay in this area has declined, mostly because of producers planting more corn with the lucrative prices.
“There’s just no hay around, really,” he said. “Everybody’s tore it out, with $6 to $7 corn. I just bought some hay from Aberdeen, about 1,200 bales, and have been moving that every day. Nothing will touch alfalfa as far as price per acre, if you can get four cuttings of dairy hay. But if you get just one cutting or two of grinding hay, you probably are better off to have it in corn if you get the rain. But you won’t get hay either if it doesn’t rain.”
Thus, the demand for hay is high.
“This winter has been just nuts. I could haul hay every day if I wanted to. I can’t stay ahead of it,” he said.
He sells some hay to Dakota Premium in Yankton but spends most of his time using his Peterbilt 379 truck to deliver locally to four dairies near Inwood and Rock Rapids, Iowa, and Hudson, S.D.
He also takes grinding hay to cattle feedlots in northwest Iowa on a regular schedule, with deliveries to three lots every week.
The Larsens run a 2008 Hesston square baler, a 2010 John Deere round baler, with a New Holland windrower and rake. Larsen mostly uses his 1998 John Deere tractor, which he enjoys tinkering with in one of the family’s many sheds spread across their farm properties in the area about nine miles northwest of Viborg.
“It’s all pretty new, so it seems to work pretty good,” he said.
Larsen recently received approval to construct an 80-foot-by-63-foot shed to store more of his square bales.
“When people are paying such a high price for hay, they all want to have it stored inside. And if the rain is coming, you can quickly set them in there,” Larsen said.
His round bales are 5-feet-by-6-feet and his square bales are 3-feet-by-3-feet.
“They are a good size for me to work with. I can use the skid loader to pick them up in the field. They’ll keep better in a 3-by-3,” he said.
The larger square bales are a lot heavier and not as easy to work with and haul, he said.
It usually takes him only about four hours to bale a quarter-section with one baler in the first cutting. He cuts at around 10 mph across the fields.
He twin rakes, which cuts the time in about half.
The first cutting usually is done in the last week of May before the bloom. Other cuttings are every 24 to 28 days after that depending on the weather.
He usually gets four cuttings of dairy hay. “I usually do mostly square bales, but if it gets rained on, I do the round bales,” he said.
Larsen likes to hire summer help as he prefers to get the field baled, picked up and hauled to the sheds in one day. His family also lifts a hand on those busy days.
With the commercial business going well, he gets about 300 calls a year. “It’s almost every day, whether it’s cutting, raking, baling or hauling. It’s almost endless,” Larsen said.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I first started. I didn’t know how it would go,” he said.
With grinding hay at about $100 to $150 per ton and dairy hay going for more than $200 a ton, it’s been a good source of income.
The young producer is enjoying his new business and hopes to stick with it for years to come.