Hay Time in Corn Country
This grower has an unusual use for some of the best dirt in the country.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
Kenny Nell is used to the reaction. By now, he laughs when folks want a little clarification about his diverse farm operation in Littleton, Illinois. “I grow corn, soybeans and WHAT???!!?” he says, with a big grin.
The “WHAT???!!?” is 500 or so acres of alfalfa, grown on some of the best, blackest dirt on the planet. Dirt with high corn suitability and actual production history (APH). Dirt that he says not only “yields tremendously” for alfalfa, but is improved by growing the forage.
Still, it took some convincing, even in his own household. “It was a little tough for me to understand … down here on some of our good black dirt, that he’s transferred it over to raising hay,” says Deana Nell, Kenny’s wife. “But you pencil it out, and it works out pretty good!” She should know; she holds an ag finance degree and was raised on a traditional corn and soybean farm.
There’s one factor, though, that makes the Nells’ hay business—and even their partnership with each other—make perfect sense. Both have raised and shown horses since they were kids. And both have spent decades fostering contacts in the show horse community, building relationships that pay leafy, green dividends.
Other than the obvious, the Nells’ operation is typical of a family farm in the power corn-growing “I”-states of Illinois, Iowa, Indiana … a couple thousand acres of corn and soybeans, with a little wheat. Most of that is the world-famous black dirt of the region, but some of the ground the Nells farm is reclaimed strip-mine land, where growing hay makes agronomic sense.
Expanding the hay operation into what would typically be corn ground is not without challenges, but given the Nells’ show horse connections, it does indeed “pencil out pretty good.” “With the horse industry, a lot of it is supported by ‘outside-ag’ money,” Kenny says. “So it broadens our income stream. $5.50 corn and $13 beans might make you scratch your head a bit, but we all know they won’t stay there,” he laughs.
The Nells know the show horse game from the inside out. Deana got her first pony when she was four. Kenny doesn’t remember meeting Deana for the first time, but he knows it was at a horse show when they were “little bitty kids,” he says.
Today, the Nells own four mares, all of which are bred and three of which they still show at National Reining Horse Association events. All are money winners, and sought after for breeding. Deana oversees the year-long process that involves fertilization and then “flush,” when the embryos are pulled and placed in “recip mares” for the 11-month pregnancy while the Nells keep showing their prize mares. “And we raise the babies,” Deana says proudly, showing off some of the offspring around the stables that will be shown and sold. The “babies” are showing promise; NRHA success is measured in prize money, and offspring from the Nells’ four mares are already racking up.
The showing season is “chaotic,” says Kenny, “but when we can travel together, we do.” Five cuttings of alfalfa and a robust customer base keep Kenny home in the summer, and the challenges of growing hay in corn country are as real as every day’s weather forecast. “The growers out west… it’s a drier climate there,” says Kenny. “Here, we’re dealing with the humidity, the drying time, and getting the hay up in that window,” he says.
He knows the horse market has certain demands on the hay they purchase. “They want green, they want weed-free, they want good testing,” he says. Kenny has a texture test, too, that lets him know if a bale is horse-worthy. “The gauge I like to use is if you grab the corner of the bale and squeeze it, and it doesn’t feel like porcupine needles”—it’s still soft and pliable—“that’s good texture for horses.” Even, easy flaking and the size of the flake are important, as well; the 3 x 3 squares from Kenny’s Massey Ferguson 2250 baler fit the bill.
The Nells have extended their reach beyond horse owners; dairy and beef cattle markets appreciate the quality and relative proximity of Nell hay. The surprise for Kenny has been the goat market; not that it exists in his area, but that the rambunctious little “customers” are so persnickety: “I thought a goat would eat anything. I’ve been proven wrong,” he laughs. Goats want the leaf on the stem; if it falls off, they won’t eat!
There’s more to the alfalfa than the Nells’ carefully cultivated markets; it provides agronomic benefits, too. The root can go 10 feet into the soil, breaking up compaction. Alfalfa helps break disease patterns. And Kenny says he looks forward to seeing how alfalfa can help him break into the emerging carbon credit market. “Who knows where that will take us?” he says.
Kenny’s argument for growing alfalfa in central Illinois is strong, even though his and Deana’s long history showing horses makes it tough for other farmers to replicate. And, as he enjoys sharing, his unique crop mix forever makes for fun conversation. “Every once in a while, I’ll get together with some guys,” he grins, speaking under his breath. “Let’s face it, most of them are old row croppers. And in the fall, they say to me, ‘You’re about to get busy here pretty quick… harvest is coming.’ And I say, ‘I’ve been harvesting since the middle of May… where have you been?’”