Naturally grown hay production: The pros and cons

Be sure the market is there before you dive into producing naturally grown hay.

My experience with “naturally grown” – not certified as organic, but attempting to use organic techniques – hay producers in the central Upper Peninsula leaves me with serious questions about farmer motives and opportunities. First, naturally grown hay is not required to meet standards accredited by the USDA National Organic Program. Farmers can participate in peer-inspection processes that provide limited assurance to the public about their natural methods of production. One group with a peer-review process is the Certified Naturally Grown organization. However, this type of certification is not a substitute for true organic certification and does not allow entry into organic markets.

The following is a short list of questions that should be answered by anyone interested in entering the naturally grown hay market.

  • What is your motivation to enter the naturally grown hay market? Profit potential? Ethical considerations? To prove it can be done?
  • Is there strong demand for naturally grown hay in your area (close enough to justify shipping costs)?
  • Will the premium price received for your naturally grown hay justify the additional expense and effort required to produce it?
  • Do you have access to adequate, affordable nutrient inputs for naturally grown hay production?
  • Do you have access to an adequate land base that will allow soil-building rotational crops to enhance hay production?

Farmers producing naturally grown hay generally choose not to utilize many of the convenient and relatively affordable tools available to conventional hay producers. These include concentrated synthetic fertilizers, synthetic seed treatments and pest control products. Some products approved by the USDA for organic production systems may be used to address pest problems. They are generally more expensive and may be less reliable than conventional pesticides.

On marginal agricultural land, including many fields in the Upper Peninsula, farmers of past generations grazed and removed hay and grain without taking adequate measures to replenish plant nutrients. In many cases, the time elapsed between the clear cutting of native forests and the abandonment of farms established on cut-over lands amounted to only a few decades. That was enough time for these relatively poor agricultural soils to be depleted of potassium, phosphorus and other essential plant nutrients.

Hay producers on these types of soils have the additional challenge of starting off with low yield potential. Careful attention to soil improvement is needed for naturally grown hay in all cases, but failure to build up soils in these cases can lead to unacceptable results. Investment in lime when needed should be the first priority on acidic soils.

In the western United States, demand outstrips the supply of certified organic hay for organic dairy farms. Producers receive a premium price for organic hay, generally about 10 to 20 percent, but sometimes higher. Hay quality is just as important in the organic market as in the conventional hay market. If you aspire to enter the organic hay market, then organic certification is absolutely essential.

Naturally grown hay production could be a viable enterprise if demand is strong, price received justifies the cost of production and available resources can make the system sustainable. Be sure that is the case if you are considering it.

Contact Michigan State University Extension educator Jim Isleib at or 906-387-2530.

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