Horses can’t say “nay” to Menke hay.
By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins
When it comes to the old adage “the customer is always right,” Matthew Menke subscribes wholeheartedly. He knows that if he doesn’t satisfy his four-legged equine customers, his two-legged ones won’t be back.
“Horses really like our hay, so we try to take what our customer wants and do it with the utmost quality,” says Menke, who lives outside Hempstead, Texas, about an hour northwest of Houston. “We give them a consistent product where horse owners can feel like they can come to us anytime, 365 days a year, and get the same quality.”
For more than a decade, the Texan has produced high-quality Bermudagrass hay. What began as a complementary endeavor to his primary business has turned into its own full-fledged operation known as MenkeHayIsForHorses.com. Today, Menke and his business partner, Stephen Lewis, bale between 50,000 and 60,000 small square bales annually.
Menke family roots in Texas run much deeper than those of the Bermudagrass that Menke grows on the state’s Coastal Plains. Six generations of the family have been ranching and farming in the Lone Star State since 1847, just two years after the independent Republic of Texas became the 28th state in the Union.
In 1885, Charles Albert Menke, Matthew’s great-grandfather, moved the family from Austin County across the Brazos River into Waller County, to land he purchased from the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. “We’ve been grazing cattle on this land ever since,” Matthew says with pride.
Menke branched out on his own after graduating from Texas A&M University in the 1990s. He opened Waller County Feed & Fertilizer, an agricultural services business in Hempstead. He recalls being frustrated with the hay he would buy from vendors. “We always struggled to get a good, consistent supply,” says the now 42-year-old. “After a few years of dealing with it, I asked, ‘Why don’t we just grow our own?’”
The operation started with just 35 acres, and hay was baled and then hauled away by hand. Menke worked hard to ensure a high-quality product for his feed store. His customers quickly noticed, and they began to multiply. So much so that in 2011, he sold the store to focus solely on the commercial hay business, which he officially launched as MenkeHayIsForHorses.com in 2013.
“Now, we bale about 320 acres of square bales and between 100 and 200 acres of round bales, depending on the year,” he says, explaining that square bales are preferred by a majority of his customers because, for a variety of reasons, the smaller bales create less waste.
Though not native to Texas (or even Bermuda, for that matter), the perennial warm-season grass is popular in southern climates for both lawns and pastures. Menke raises a hybrid Bermuda variety that’s adapted to the region’s heat and humidity.
“It takes marginal amounts of [fertilizer] and adequate rainfall, of course,” he explains. “It’s easier to manage than other crops.”
While the grass typically breaks winter dormancy in March or early April in southeast Texas, Menke says they begin working the crop in February, controlling weeds and competitive grasses. Potassium also is applied in the spring. The first cutting typically occurs in May.
“We try to cut every 30 to 45 days,” Menke says. “I try to stop at the end of September although, if necessary, we can bale through the middle of November. We average about four cuttings per year.”
The cutting interval is a key to managing and maintaining the grass’s palatability for horses. Bermudagrass has a fine stem and long, slender leaves, but as it matures, the stem gets longer and larger in diameter.
“You let that crop go 60 to 75 days, and it’s going to be long, rank and tough,” Menke says. “There’s a good chance a horse will not eat it. If a horse won’t eat it, we can’t sell it.”
After each cutting, nitrogen is applied to stimulate growth. Menke provides nutrients that are commensurate with the tonnage harvested with each cutting, essentially putting back what the crop removes.
“If you abuse a field, the stand starts to get weak and thinned down, and then competitive grasses come in,” he says. “Horses have a tendency to sort that grass out. If there’s too much, the owner will see it left in the bottom of the trough, and we’ll get a call.”
With root systems that can be 6 feet deep or more, Bermudagrass is drought-tolerant but not drought-proof. “Our No. 1 ‘predator’ is drought,” Menke says, adding that armyworms and stem maggots are the primary pests he encounters. “We’re dryland hay farmers, so we make whatever hay … on what God gives us.”
When Menke operated the feed store in Hempstead, they were open 55 hours a week, which meant he was there essentially every day. Now as proprietors of MenkeHayIsForHorses.com, however, they are only open to the public four hours a week, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday. While the hours may be few, it’s a nonstop, all-hands-on-deck affair for Matthew, his wife of 18 years, Jan, and their children, Howard and Maggie. His sister, Sarah, also gets in on the act, as does his partner, Stephen, and Stephen’s family.
“It can be a three-ring circus depending on what time of year it is,” Menke says, noting that now during winter months, parking can be a problem as vehicles fill their lot with customers purchasing hay in quantities from a single 21-bale bundle that fits in the back of a pickup truck to a semi hauling 32 bundles. “We actually have procedures in place. It’s kind of like a line at McDonald’s, except we have a lot fewer choices. You basically have two: square or round.”
Misty Telschow of Hempstead, known locally as the “Hay Girl,” has made her living for the past five years by hauling hay and delivering it to feed stores. She’s worked with Menke for the past year. “When you have a good product, it’s easy to sell it,” she says. “The feed stores love this. It’s good hay. It’s clean, and every bale is very consistent.”
Though Menke admits he sometimes misses the daily interaction with customers he had at the feed and fertilizer store, he relishes the time on the farm spent with family, especially Howard, who at 16 years old, is learning what it takes to produce a commodity crop that’s asked for by name.
“We may have to work a little harder than most people do in the summertime, but I really love it in the wintertime,” Menke says with a laugh, adding that a slower pace during the winter months affords more time for family and fun, including playing fiddle in a band that tours in Texas and beyond. “I definitely love what I do.”