Pictured Above: Knowing whether the customer has a day job that subsidizes their hobby can make a difference in what type of equipment that producer is interested in buying. Other producers may be trying to earn income from their livestock hobby, so they may prefer to scrimp and save and try to make their older machines last longer.

Making hay is both a science and an art. However, each grower approaches hay production in a unique way, and has their own specific challenges. Being able to help a grower anticipate those challenges and meet their equipment needs is what a good salesperson does —right? While this is correct, successful hay and forage equipment dealers are finding it can pay dividends when a salesperson builds a stronger, more intimate relationship with customers where the salesperson acts in more of a consultant role to the grower.

Many Different Needs

Hay production occurs on a very rigid, regular schedule in order to achieve the desired maturity for forage crops, says Kevin Shinners, professor of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. 

“There is such a wide variety in the hay business. Custom hay guys need big, commercial equipment and are focused on efficiency and making a quality product. A beef producer may not be as picky about his hay, but a dairy is looking at the hay from a nutritional standpoint. They need to make the most milk possible from that hay,” says Kyle Frazier, sales and marketing manager with Laforge Systems, Waterloo, Iowa. “You are looking at using different forage crops for hay, and more haylage. Big squares are still more efficient, but you are still seeing a lot of round bales, too.”

Hay production needs also vary by geographic area. According to Frazier, the Midwest produces a lot of hay, but more commercial hay production is done in the western U.S. In the Southeastern U.S., more producers are looking into baling silage for feed.

Dealer Takeaways

Ultimately, the dealer takes on a significant amount of risk with each new salesperson hired, and the hay and forage industry are no different. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when hiring and training dealer salespeople for the hay and forage specialty area:

  • Select the right people — Being selective about hires is the first step. Do they have an agriculture background? Are they familiar with the process of making hay? You may even want to go so far as to require salespeople to be farmers themselves, own livestock or be in the hay business.
  • Provide proper training — The agriculture industry changes quickly, so it is beneficial to host annual hay clinics featuring Extension or other local and/or regional hay experts to get up to date on the latest hay related technology and trends. Hay and forage customers could also be invited to these hay clinics, to make them a major dealer event and provide yet another touchpoint in the relationship building process.
  • Have the right conversations — Conversations with customers should focus on their operating costs, margins per acre, and what the customer hopes to get out of their crop. Find out what the customer’s equipment difficulties are, their challenges when making hay, and what keeps them up at night.

“That is not new in the dairy regions of the country and (Eastern) Canada, but now it is making its way south and west,” says George Rigdon, product marketing manager for Crop Packaging with New Holland. “The Sunbelt region is a huge opportunity for dealers to better understand the importance of quality hay and how that translates to an improved rate of gain for beef production.”

Some hay producers participate in the hay and forage business as a part-time farming operation or hobby. Knowing whether the customer has a day job that subsidizes their hobby can make a difference in what type of equipment that producer is interested in buying, says Dennis Buckmaster, professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. Equipment size and age translates into the number of acres per hour a producer is able to complete, meaning more efficiency.

“They can probably afford nicer machinery. Other producers may be trying to earn income from their livestock hobby, so they may prefer to scrimp and save and try to make their older machines last longer,” Buckmaster says. “Flexibility is key to really understand your customer and what their constraints and goals are.”

Understanding producers’ labor needs is becoming a bigger issue in the hay and forage industry, Buckmaster notes, and labor can factor into equipment purchase decisions, hay storage and transporting hay. Certain types of forage need to be handled differently, depending on how they will be stored.

“Your machinery selection is going to be very different if you can be mowing and raking at the same time, or raking and baling at the same time,” Buckmaster says. “It’s very difficult for a single operator.”

Improving ROI

A common theme across the hay industry is improving return on investment. The precision ag technology available today is helping growers maximize their profitability, such as making more dense bales.

“You will have fewer bales to move and can better utilize hay storage space,” Rigdon adds. 

A dealer salesperson should be able to help growers determine if a hay crop is indeed ready to bale based on moisture level. Precision technology can assist with making that determination, but the end goal remains the same — producing the highest quality feed possible. 

Another hay production nuance that dealer salespeople should be knowledgeable about is ensuring that trash levels in the hay remain low. 

“There may be more tonnage in the hay, but not added value for the animal consuming that hay,” Rigdon adds. “Dealer salespeople should understand concepts like foreign particulate matter (ash content), cut height, how much stubble should be left behind, reducing the amount of ash in the windrow, setting the rake height, rake type and minimizing the amount of ash for that rake type.”

“Dealers have to be translators. When the customer comes in, the dealer has to be able to translate what the customer is saying into what type of equipment they need and what options that equipment should have. You also have to understand who your competitors are and how they are equipping their machines…” – George Rigdon, New Holland

Shinners notes that, in the dairy business, producers’ quest for increased productivity means selecting different hay production equipment than what they have previously purchased in the past. 

“Producers are abandoning the traditional windrower or mower/conditioner and going to triple mowers mounted on tractors, cutting 30 or more feet in a pass,” Shinners says. “They are maintaining the hay quality and maturity they want and getting it out of the field as fast as possible.”

Producers making haylage are seeing the benefits of tedding the crop, which helps the haylage dry more quickly so it will be ready for chopping. That means that dealer salespeople may also be selling an additional piece of equipment to the producer. By assisting customers in producing higher quality hay, which is more profitable, a dealer salesperson makes themselves indispensable.

“A really good salesperson needs to be attuned to the process of making good hay and forage,” Shinners says. “What affects the drying rate of that crop? Understand the basics of silage fermentation.”

Beyond the technical aspects of hay and forage production, Shinners suggests that salespeople should understand the costs involved in every aspect of the process. 

“When making round bales, there are costs of getting the material to an animal — as soon as the bale hits the ground, there are other costs associated up and down the value chain,” Shinners says. “Salespeople should understand baling, densification, cost-effective ways to wrap that material, differences in the film and film thickness and offer cost-effective solutions .It is all about knowledge.”

Playing the Weather Game

Of course, when it comes to hay production, weather is always a factor, especially for first cuttings of hay, when crop tonnages can be the highest. Jessica Williamson, Ph.D., hay and forage specialist with AGCO, says the shift in climate patterns means good, dry hay is increasingly difficult to make in North America.

“We’re seeing more dairies feeding more silage and baleage and less dry hay, because of difficulties getting a crop dry in a lot of climates,” Shinners says. “When a crop gets rained on, there is a quality loss. Producers are gravitating to a system that reduces their risk.”

“With local weather patterns being more volatile, it’s important for hay producers to be ready to make hay when the weather will allow,” adds Buckmaster.

“Many decades ago, the goal was making as much forage as possible, so producers were waiting as long as possible to mow to maximize tonnage,” Williamson says. “Now, we have the research that shows that high-quality forage leads to greater animal performance and productivity, making it essential to harvest hay on time to meet the nutritional needs of livestock.”

Producers in cattle country are taking a different approach to making hay because of the weather by using a silage baler with a cutter and wrapper, says Jason Wire, hay & forage product manager with AGCO, based in Hesston, Kan. 

“They need to get the hay off their fields because of the weather, and if they can do that in 2 days vs. 4-5 days and still have quality hay, they are going to make money,” Wire says.

Meeting Customer Needs

Some dealer salespeople become more of an expert on hay vs. hay equipment experts or become more focused on the technical details rather than the agronomics of hay production, Wire adds.

“Dealers have to be translators. When the customer comes in, the dealer has to be able to translate what the customer is saying into what type of equipment they need and what options that equipment should have. You also have to understand who your competitors are and how they are equipping their machines,” says Rigdon.

“Dealers do a very good job with stocking parts, and that is critical. They should know which parts wear a lot or commonly fail that customers will need for the hay and forage season,” says Buckmaster. 

“What the customer really wants is a reliable product and parts and service support,” explains Rigdon. “It is basic, but we hear that repeatedly. That is the number one driver in purchase decisions.”

Dealer salespeople should be having conversations with customers on their operating costs, margins per acre and what the customer hopes to get out of their crop. 

“In the past, we have hesitated to talk to growers about dollars and their cost structure, but now we are starting to see that dialogue more and how hay equipment is going to affect their ROI,” Wire adds. “Start the conversation with ‘How much are you selling your hay for?’ And work backward from there, in terms of costs.”

Williamson says that building the customer relationship also includes having discussions about their equipment struggles. 

“The most important thing is what that piece of hay equipment is going to do during the hay cycle,” Wire says.

Understand the Ins & Outs

Having clear expectations for hay and forage salespeople and providing them with the proper training is very important, says Williamson.

A strong approach from the top down can also influence hiring practices. Steve Merritt, sales manager with Venture Equipment, a New Holland dealership in Searcy, Ark., is extremely selective about hires to his hay and forage team — hand picking his hay and forage specialists. 

“They all own cattle themselves, they cut, rake and bale hay themselves — they are farmers, too,” Merritt says. “It is a prerequisite for me. They have to understand the ins and outs of making a good, quality bale of hay.”

Finding those employees may not be easy, according to Merritt, because the right salesperson may be a current customer.

“They have to have a good reputation, a good attitude and they are probably super humble, without much confidence in themselves,” Merritt notes. “My challenge, as their trainer, is to help them understand they did make the right decision. Once they get through a few sales, they will work harder for you.”

Merritt says that because his salespeople understand what the customer is going through, they are more compassionate and can sell better.

“I don’t want the guy who sells the most; I want the one who the customer is confident enough to call. When that phone call happens, the salesperson has become the ‘go-to’ guy for that customert…” – Steve Merritt, Venture Equipment

“They know how to solve the problem before the customer needs help,” Merritt adds. “The customer has a different respect for them. The salespeople know what question to ask when a customer presents different situations.”

The old adage that people buy from people and that sales is a relationship business rings true for Merritt. Fourteen years ago, Merritt began hiring experienced hay producers as salespeople, and the investment in people has paid off with increased sales. 

“Our hay and forage sales have grown by 100%. I ask our employees to be champions. I don’t want the guy who sells the most; I want the one who the customer is confident enough to call. When that phone call happens, the salesperson has become the ‘go-to’ guy for that customer,” Merritt says.

If there is a technical problem with hay and forage equipment, Merritt sends both the hay and forage specialist and an equipment technician to fix it. 

High-Level Trust

At Stotz Equipment, the dealership strives for each dealer salesperson to transition into being more like a consultant, says Cody Behrend, sales manager with the 25-store John Deere dealership. It is an approach the organization has had for 5 years. 

“We want our salespeople making a 2-5 year plan with each customer and talking about their business,” Behrend says. “If you have the right person with the right customers, that transition comes naturally. They start generating that relationship, and it shifts from professional courtesy to friendship to the salesperson being a trusted advisor.”

Making the sale has to be a long-term game at times, Behrend notes, so successful salespeople must find other solutions for the customer or connect them with another customer who has tried what they are doing. Bringing additional resources to the table can reinforce the building of that long-term customer relationship. However, each customer must be treated as an individual.

“Some customers do not want a consultant,” Behrend observes. “They want to give their salesperson just enough financial information to make the sale so they can old-school negotiate the price every time. Other customers want the consultant and more intimate conversations about next steps, what keeps them up at night and stress points on the farm.”

Stotz Equipment handles each customer with a team approach, Behrend adds. That means when a new piece of equipment is delivered to a customer’s farm, there is a technician and a precision ag representative there to help optimize the machine.

“The salesperson is also there, still building that relationship and coordinating it all. The team approach makes a customer feel like the store has their back — an entire organization is behind him to make sure he is profitable and efficient,” Behrend says.

Seeing that kind of relationship in action is an awesome experience, Behrend notes, and has paid off for Stotz Equipment with increased sales for the past 5 years. Behrend recalls a time when he rode along with one of his salespeople, Kyle Holden, and a customer.

“The customer says, ‘Kyle, what are we doing next year and the year after that with the forage harvester?’ Kyle is almost the equipment manager for this customer’s farm. I was blown away by the kind of trust and relationship they had,” Behrend says. “Kyle and the customer had talked about a plan; Kyle kept track of the plan, and when it is time to order equipment for the next year, he goes to the customer. Because of that level of detail, Kyle is one of our most successful salesmen in overall dollars, and the customers just love him.”

Behrend encourages salespeople to make smart decisions, while keeping the long-term relationship with that customer in mind.

“If you make a sale that is not in the best interest of the customer now, what are transactions going to look like in 2025 with that customer? Our goal is to establish a long-term relationship with our customers. We want to help them meet their needs now and in the future,” Behrend says.