THE Mallee around Ouyen has long been recognised as wheat and sheep country, but it is fast gaining a reputation as one of Victoria’s premier hay-producing regions.
Recognition of the region’s premium hay production credentials is growing exponentially, with red loamy soils and good drying weather being the key to what has become a welcome addition to farm income, and an increasingly important cropping tool to boot.
Fourth-generation farmer Jarrod (Jasper to his mates) Munro is one of those reaping the benefits of supplying both the domestic and export hay markets.
He farms a property north-west of Ouyen with his father, brother and uncle, and tells me: “There has been a rapid adoption of hay production around Ouyen and across the Mallee.”
While hay provides an extra, welcome income stream, the incorporation of ‘oats for hay’ into traditional crop rotations also makes sound agronomic sense.
According to the experts, there are herbicide resistance benefits in cutting a hay crop before the ryegrass comes to head while farmers have also found that a hay crop can help preserve soil moisture for the following year’s cereal crop.
On the Munro property, hay production supplements a wide variety of more traditional cereal crops including wheat and barley, lupins and lentils, and peas and chickpeas.
The Munros grow vetch to make hay for the domestic market, and oats for the export hay market.
But while hay production has become an increasingly important income stream for a growing number of Mallee farmers, there is a Catch 22.
Jarrod explained that at the same time hay producers are praying for dry weather to get their crops mown down, conditioned and baled, cereal croppers are praying for rain to bolster the health and growth of their crops.
When you are doing both, and on the same farm, it can be a tricky balancing act.
“But that,” he says philosophically, “is farming for you.”
A good year for hay can be quite lucrative, but as Jarrod pointed out; “Not every year is a good one.”
The same applies to cereals.
It would seem that the best that farmers like Jarrod can hope for is that if Mother Nature is not inclined the make it a good year for hay, she might smile on the cereal crops. Or vice versa.
There are other indicators that hay production is gaining momentum in the Mallee.
Long-time farm machinery dealer Doug Jackson reported a definite increase in interest for hay-making equipment during the past couple of years.
Doug, from Patchewollock, has the Massey Ferguson franchises at Speed and Walpeup, trading as Poole and Jackson.
The company has been servicing Mallee farmers, and others further afield, since the 1960s.
Doug acknowledges that his fortunes rise and fall with those of his customers.
And says that increasing hay-making equipment sales are a welcome fillip for his business.
Meanwhile, Swan Hill-based shed manufacturer Entegra is also reporting increased inquiry from the Mallee.
“Phenomenal,” is the way the company’s marketing manager, Adam Smith described it.
He said sales to date this year had eclipsed 2019.
“We’ve sold three times as many hay sheds as last year,” Adam revealed.
Entegra has been building hay sheds since 1991, and specialises in agricultural sheds for a multitude of industries. It is well known in Sunraysia, for example, for its horticultural sheds like those used for the fresh grape export industry.
For hay sheds, it sells both pre-engineered hay shed kits and custom designed hay sheds.
It is a big shed builder, with the company’s website proclaiming it does not deal in sheds less than 600 metres square.
The smallest hay shed built in the Mallee to date was an impressive 32 metres by 18 metres.
But Entegra’s largest so far is a whopping 80 metres by 45 metres for a hay export company.
Adam said the surge in demand for hay sheds was understandable.
“Hay left in the paddock degrades,” he explained.
A shed “protects the hay and adds flexibility,” Adam said, allowing farmers to store their hay out of the weather and maximise their returns when the market price for quality hay is at is peak.
“Hay prices can fluctuate wildly,” Adam said.
“The difference can be as much as 40 per cent.”
Entegra has had to restructure to meet the growing demand for its sheds.
It is running two shifts a day at its Swan Hill factory, and looking to employ more people, advertising widely throughout north-west and central Victoria.
It’s a growing industry for sure.