How to Start a Hay Business: Things I Wish I Knew When I Started
When Rob Flowers started his custom hay operation, there was a lot he didn’t know. Now he’s passing along his wisdom to others wondering how to start a hay business. Flowers stopped by the Hay Kings podcast to reflect on his career and share his experiences — both good and bad — as a custom operator. Their conversation highlights how your equipment, customer base and ability to prioritize can help you build a custom operation.
Here are some key parts of the episode, edited for readability.
Hay Kings: Would you say you were prepared when you got started? Or was there a learning curve?
Rob Flowers: Well, I mean, a learning curve, absolutely. Prepared? No. People think it’s as easy as “Let’s go buy a tractor, a cutter, a rake and a baler. We’re going to make hay.”
I always joke I’m a mechanic who started baling hay. You’ve got to know how to service equipment. You can’t be scared of it. I’m not saying everyone needs to know how to rebuild transmissions and engines. I wouldn’t tackle that. There’s people that know more about that than I do. You just have to have a mechanical working relationship with the equipment. That’s the learning curve.
Then there’s the learning curve of when is the hay ready. We’re on Mother Nature’s timeframe, not our timeframe. There’s so many variables involved in it.
Hay Kings: Let’s talk about customers. Where did you start out with your customer base? How has it changed?
Rob Flowers: In the beginning, obviously we had small equipment. An 8-foot cutter, a little ten-wheel rake. We started out baling horse pens. We were kind of the little guy. We’d go in and bale these smaller fields. I had a full-time job at the time. What I could do in the evening between five and dark, we did.
As word got around and we got a couple of larger jobs, we leased some land. But a lot of those original customers we still have. It’s hard for the smaller guys to get somebody in there to bale their property. Everybody obviously wants the big jobs. They pay more. We try to take care of those smaller customers.
We stayed with the majority of those original customers. We’ve added quite a few large ones too — up to 225 acres in one field.
Hay Kings: As we’re talking about those small fields versus those big fields, how do you think about prioritizing those custom deals?
Rob Flowers: I tell people, I try to be honest and upfront and as see-through as I can be. I gotta go to the big stuff first. That’s what allows me to stay in business — taking care of the large customers. I’ll get to you. You just have to be patient. That’s one of the reasons we bought virtually two pieces of every piece of equipment we need. If we’re working on a big field, we can get to some of the smaller fields for some of the customers we’ve had for years in a shorter time frame.
Hay Kings: That’s a fairly big jump in financial terms going to that second piece of equipment. Did that make it that you had to quit your day job?
Rob Flowers: Well, actually no. I got frustrated at my job. My wife and I talked. I said, “I think I can make a living baling hay.” She said, “Do it and don’t look back.” So, I jumped in with both feet.
As that second year evolved after that, I realized, “Hey, I need another piece of equipment,” and I made that step. It was scary. Any time you sign your name on the dotted line for a piece of equipment that’s thousands of dollars, that’s a little scary.
Hay Kings: All of this feels vaguely familiar to me. Starting out with small, older equipment and then at some point you start doing well enough that you can afford something nicer. There’s a progression there. Is that how this has to happen?
Rob Flowers: I think if you want to increase your business, it’s a necessity. I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that it’s nice to crawl into a tractor that’s paid for. I’m not saying that we all have to owe billions of dollars on equipment, but you can’t take wore out equipment and make a living. If I’m having to work on that equipment all the time, I don’t have it in the field. To answer your question, yes, I think you have to evolve equipment if you want to get larger. When you’re custom baling and you want to produce a bale of hay to retail, you’ve got to get in there, get the hay cut and get it baled. It takes speed. With speed, you need high-capacity equipment, you need durable equipment and you need equipment you’re not having to work on all the time.
Hay Kings: This also sounds vaguely familiar to my experience. It’s kind of crazy how someone in Washington and someone in Texas can have similar experiences in that expansion and growth. I really like your commentary here.
Rob Flowers: I’ve seen a lot of people that decide they’re going to get into the hay business. They run over to the local dealership, regardless of what color it is. They say, “I got a great deal on this brand-new tractor and a great deal on this brand-new cutter.”
Now the end of the year is here, and they say, “I’ve got to make a payment and I don’t have the money.” You have to start out small. You have to get that customer base.
Hay Kings: Is there anything you would have done different with your machinery purchases throughout the years? Would you have grown a little faster? Would you have gone to something newer faster? Would you have said, ‘I have to have a nice swather,’ versus ‘I have to have a nice baler.’ Take us through your thought process on that.
Rob Flowers: As far as equipment goes, once I got out of my wore-out first cutter, I always purchase new cutters because there’s no hour meter on them. You don’t know how many acres have been put on the things. You really have to be a good judge of what kind of condition that machine is in. I never regretted buying new cutters. I always felt really confident that I knew if they had hit a stump or they hit a chain or a piece cement or whatever, I knew because I bought them brand new. And I’ve had very good luck out of my cutters because of that.
Hay Kings: I think there’s only one manufacturer that makes a 21-foot cutter. It is okay to say the brand name.
Rob Flowers: Well, I’ll do that then. Shout out to Vermeer. My 21-foot cutters are TM1410 trailed mowers. Those mowers are probably one of the best inventions that anybody has ever come up with. We can take it through a 10-foot gate, and it’ll dance around. It’s agile. It does a great job mowing. The blades are super thick to the point of we can cut 400 acres without flipping the blades on them.
To hear more about Flowers’ experience, thoughts on the market and advice for new custom hay producers, listen to the full episode of Hay Kings below or wherever podcasts are available. Want even more information on how to start a hay business? Check out four tips from custom hay producers.
When you’re ready, your local Vermeer dealer can help you explore equipment. Find your dealer here.
Ready to put up hay? Tips to get you started.
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