Trial, Error, Win

This Tennessee farmer takes top honors at the Southeastern Hay Contest.

By Des Keller | Photos By Jamie Cole

It didn’t take long for Lee Gilmore to learn how to produce award-winning hay. After just four years of growing alfalfa on his Middle Tennessee farm, he captured the top prize—out of 328 entrants from 13 states—in the 2017 Southeastern Hay Contest for entering a sample with the highest relative forage quality (RFQ). The awards were given during the Sunbelt Agricultural Expo at Moultrie, Georgia.

The high RFQ for his hay meant he could sell at a premium

Gilmore, who spent more than 25 years as a petroleum geologist prior to returning in 2000 to teach and farm, credits a fair amount of luck for his win. “The weather worked just right for us last year, in that we were able to take our first cutting on time at the optimum time,” he says.

As it was, the winning entry was taken from that first cutting of the season, in early May, which is unusual for the area in which Gilmore farms. Generally, the second or third go-round has the highest RFQ, because those cuttings, which typically occur during drier summer months, usually allow more time for the cut alfalfa to cure. “In April and May, getting three days in a row without rain is pretty rare,” Gilmore says. During the growing season, he generally cuts his stands about every 28 days.

Outstanding Hay

The awards, sponsored by Massey Ferguson®, are earned in seven different forage categories—Gilmore won for alfalfa. In addition, an overall prize is given to the entrant with the highest RFQ. That’s where Gilmore took the top spot, with an RFQ of 269.

For his work, Gilmore’s high score earned his Seldom Rest Farms, which is located near Pulaski, Tennessee, a $1,000 cash prize and the use of one of two Massey Ferguson pieces of equipment for a year: a DM Series professional disc mower or an RK Series rotary rake. Gilmore has opted for the use of a rotary rake.

Chances are that new RK361DSR rotary rake will be operated by Lee Gilmore’s mother, plucky 88-year-old Trudy Gilmore. She and Lee’s father purchased the farm for their retirement in 1976. Though her husband died in 2009, Trudy has continued to help work the land.

“I will enjoy it,” Trudy says of the new rotary rake. “I’d rather be busy out on the farm than sitting in the house.”

Though he won’t be operating it most of the time, Lee Gilmore says the benefits of the new rake will be evident. “This will greatly speed up the efficiency of getting our hay cut, then baled in a timely fashion,” he says. “The timing is key to getting the premium quality. I anticipate that the rake will gently handle the hay in such a manner that leaf retention will be good and will make a fluffy windrow, resulting in accelerated curing.”

Overcoming Challenges

Gilmore will be the first to tell you that his learning curve with alfalfa has been steep. The first time he planted the forage back in 1996, the drill was set incorrectly, and the seeds were planted too deep, about 1½ to 2 inches. (With some exceptions, mainly for soil type, alfalfa is generally planted to a depth of only ¼ to ¾ inch.) “By the time the alfalfa started coming up, the weeds were already overtaking the field,” Gilmore says.

After his first attempt, the Gilmores took a sort of hiatus before planting 10 acres of alfalfa in the fall of 2014, adding 20 more acres in 2016. In 2017, Gilmore took five alfalfa cuttings and sold the hay to area horse, cattle and goat operations.

Selling for a Premium

The high RFQ for his hay meant he could sell at a premium. Whereas most grass hay might sell for $2 to $4 per bale, his alfalfa sold for $8 to $15 per bale. Gilmore puts up hay bales that are 14 x 18 x 36 inches, with the alfalfa bales weighing about 60 pounds.

That kind of quality doesn’t just happen, though. In addition to having his hay analyzed for RFQ, Gilmore conducts soil tests every other year, in particular to monitor pH levels, minerals and nutrients, such as potassium. He also has spent considerable time smoothing fields—he even owns a special piece of machinery that lifts and removes rocks.

The outlook for the Gilmores this year is good. An alfalfa planting can be cut for five to six years, and the highest quality crops generally occur in years two through four. Gilmore is in the third year of this planting, so, weather-willing, they may be able to duplicate 2017’s results.

Massey Ferguson is committed to helping growers find better ways to produce high-quality hay through educational videos and articles that can be found online and in our publications. Our local field product specialist worked closely with Cleburne Farm Supply and Mr. Gilmore to understand his operation and determine which Massey Ferguson hay tool would best fit his needs. For more information, visit the Southeastern Hay Contest website.