Although corn is still the No. 1 crop in the country, with beans running a close second, hay is now within a mere million acres of beans as the second largest crop.

If this trend continues, hay will soon be the top crop in the country in total acres. So, why are so many producers switching acres to hay? The answers are easier than “finding a needle in a hay stack” because all of the answers add up to make a neat, tight bale of money for the hay producer.

One of the main reasons for growing hay is simply the flexibility of the crop. Quality hay can be grown in every state, with moderate planting and harvesting cost compared to many other crops.

Alfalfa, which sells for as much as $8 per small bale at the feed store, is grown in almost every state. Alfalfa is usually the hay of choice for horse owners and dairy farmers because of its high nutritional value.

Quality horse hay is in high demand mainly because of the popularity of horses. In Texas, there are currently more head of horses than was found before the invention of the automobile. However, especially in the South, not only alfalfa, but also many other hay crops are popular for cattle and horses, including Sudan and the perennial Coastal bermudagrass.

Another reason for the popularity of hay is that it can be grown in small quantities for a profit. Smaller tractors can handle hay harvesting, and baling equipment is much less expensive than what is needed to harvest grain and cotton.

Since most farmers today are classified as small farmers, hay fits the operation of these smaller farms, where more than half of the hay equipment in this country is currently sold.

A final good reason to grow hay is the marketability of the crop. Top quality hay “put up right” brings a premium price. If the crop gets a rain or is weedy, then the cowman is a good buyer. Many producers have found it profitable to sell their choice hay for a top price and feed their lesser quality hay to their own stock.

However you cut it, hay usually has a market, locally or through a hay broker.

Of course, nothing is easy on the farm, and hay harvesting is no different. The one thing about hay is that when it's ready to harvest, the producer also must be ready to harvest. Hay, unlike most crops, begins losing food value the minute it is cut.

Any delay in harvesting after optimum moisture content of the crop is reached will cost the producer money because the value of the hay will decline.

I know you've heard the old saying, “Make hay while the sun shines.” After baling over a million small square bales in my life, I can honestly tell you that this is good advice for any hay producer.

Steve Thompson, Ph.D., is the manager of John Deere Technical Training Programs at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. Write at 3200 W. 7th Ave., Corsicana, Texas 75110, or e-mail: sthom@nav.cc.tx.us