RENFREW - Like most, George Nesbitt knows the importance of making hay while the sun shines.
But unlike many, the Renfrew-area grower knows how important it can be to be able to make hay when the sun refuses to co-operate.
With 800 of his 1,000 acres under hay and a thriving export market this year due to the serious drought in the southeastern U.S. and wet conditions in the northeast states, Nesbitt has been able to cure his crop on a steady basis with a dryer he designed and built.
The dryer, 12.5 ft. wide by 85 ft. in length and with 5/16 steel walls, two 1.6-million BTU heaters, one top and one bottom, and fans that can move 52,000 cu. ft. of 110F dry air a minute over the bales, allows Nesbitt to dry hay at up to 50 per cent moisture down to the desired 10 to 12 per cent.
While others have to wait out wet weather, Nesbitt can bale, dry and store his hay, getting that high vegetative-state first cut and even squeezing in an extra cut of his mixed canary reed grass and alfalfa in a good year.
He's had the dryer for three seasons now and says it's paid for itself, especially in the wet growing season of 2006 when he got off an extra cut.
While the Ottawa Valley with its temperate climate is great for growing hay, it's less so when it comes to curing the crop.
Nesbitt says the normal four-day window from cutting to baling can be problematic. "If we only get three days we have a problem. Hay will dry down to 30 per cent in two days but getting to 15 per cent for large bales can take too long given our weather up here," Nesbitt told The AgriNews during a visit to his operation in mid-November.
His dryer will handle 42 bales, each weighing about 1050 lbs. at 25 to 20 per cent moisture, and will dry them down to 900 to 950 lbs., at 10 per cent moisture.
Nesbitt likes to rake his hay at about 30 per cent moisture. It's a fine line, but one he feels it's important since it keeps the leaves in his alfalfa -reed canary grass mix soft.
It takes three hours to dry hay from 25 to 10 per cent (that includes a half-hour warm-up and a half-hour down) and seven hours to dry down from 50 per cent moisture. It takes a gallon of diesel fuel to drop the moisture in a ton of hay by10 per cent, Nesbitt says.
Once baled Nesbitt's hay doesn't sit in the field or end up piled along fence lines.
It's either bagged in the field or quickly dried down and then stored on pallets in one of his two half-acre Harnois structures ready for trucking to a customer.
Baled wet hay presents several problems, not the least of which is extra weight, an especially important consideration in these days of dollar-a-litre diesel fuel. As any grower knows, there's the danger of spontaneous combustion and there's also the loss of food value as hay burns up its calories and caramelizes if baled too wet.
W.G. Nesbitt Hay Ltd. shares office space and grounds with Nesbitt Aggregates, which has been extracting and marketing decorative stone since1967.
Nesbitt has been designing and building stone crushing equipment for years so is no stranger to producing heavy-duty, long-lasting machinery, a skill he put to use in designing a dryer for the North American market to replace the flimsy and finicky Italian machines that had been imported into Pennsylvania, where many of his hay buyers reside.
The Italian models broke down easily and servicing became a problem so Nesbitt decided to build his own equipment, designed to handle hay on a North American scale.
Many of his buyers are Amish dairy producers and they know what they want. And they're willing to pay to get the quality they need.
Drought conditions in the U.S. south and wet weather in the northeast were so severe this year that Nesbitt started shipping bales - measuring 3x3x8 ft. - in July. Farms in North Carolina and Tennessee were not only out of hay, but their pasture had burned off due to the severity of the drought, he said.
On November 20 the drought in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia was still listed as "exceptional" and Lake Lanier, which provides the city of Atlanta and its population of 3-million with drinking water, had been reduced to a puddle.
His Amish customers know the value of good quality alfalfa and have it tested for nutrition and protein, knowing that good quality hay will reduce the amount of supplements - at three times the price of forage - that they will need to feed their dairy cattle.
Alfalfa was selling for about $250 a ton while good quality horse hay, which dominated his exports this year, was fetching $350 a ton.
While dairy farmers have to worry about cost of production, most horse owners aren't saddled with these concerns. Some of his hay is going to horses on the U.S. Olympic equestrian team and owners of animals valued at up to $5-million don't quibble over the price of a few tons of forage, he says.
Nesbitt is fielding seven or eight calls a day in his Renfrew office and word of his hay has spread virtually around the world with calls coming from as far away as Dubai and Aruba.
But the combination of rising fuel prices and the increase in the value of the Canadian dollar may price his product - 97 per cent of which was exported this year - out of the market. If there is a return to normal growing conditions in the U.S. next year he is betting that his exports will plummet and is already ripping out hay to plant beans.
He has a second dryer now under construction. Slightly smaller than the behemoth that sits in his yard, it's being built to run on electricity or from a PTO and will be small enough to be transported on the highway without a permit.
Nesbitt has plans to build a third and has discussed the possibility of having some built in the U.S. under licence.
They will probably sell in the range of $200,000, he says.
For more information on Nesbitt's operation go to www.wgnesbitthay.com.