Setting the price of a bale

Sale: Every Tuesday, the Westminster hay auction tries to match sellers and buyers of alfalfa, red clover and various grasses to feed cattle and horses.

February 28, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The hundred buyers and the hundred sellers eyed each other. Auctioneer Nevin Tasto, microphone at the ready, stood between them and literally bales of merchandise -- bales of fragrant hay in shades of green and gold auctioned in Westminster every Tuesday.

"Thirty dollars! Thirty dollars!" Tasto said, standing next to a giant roll of orchard grass, which was the first offering of the day at the longest-running event of its kind in Maryland.

No one in the crowd responded with a nod or a tilt of the head. Nothing.

"Twenty-five," Tasto said.

"Twentyfivetwentyfivetwentyfive. Twenty dollars." That attracted one nod and then a second, which raised the price back to $25 a bale. Sold, for $25, and less than 30 seconds after the auction began, Tasto moved to the next lot.

"Mixed grass, 11 bales," he announced. "Got nice leaves in there, folks."

Hay is as important to cattle and horses as bread is to people. Like bread, it is marketed in different textures, different flavors, and differing nutritional content. Hay is leafy and tender or coarse with long stems, high fiber or high energy.

"Cows'll eat the hell out of it, and then you eat the steak," said John Fram of Catonsville, who attended the auction with his wife, Terry, to buy hay for their 104 horses. He produced about 4,000 bales last summer and has bought 3,400 bales at auctions.

Buyers go to the Westminster hay sale for the variety -- a choice of legumes (including alfalfa and red clover) and grasses (such as timothy, orchard grass and tall fescue). All of it, when cut, dried and baled, is hay.

Farmers once stored it loose in their barns. Then came the development of mechanized balers that farmers hooked to their tractors, producing the neat, rectangular bundles that typically weigh 30 to 60 pounds, or big cylindrical rolls weighing hundreds of pounds. The hay is sold in lots varying in size from a single large bale to many as 200 bales stacked on a flat-bed trailer.

"One round bale. Timothy," said Tasto, standing beside the large bale. He tried to start the bidding at $40, had to drop to $25 before someone offered him a nod, then got a bid of $30.

"Anybody else want in here?" he said.

No one answered. "Let 'er go?" he asked the seller.

"No," said Duffy Wright from Montgomery County. "Gotta have thirty-five."

The buyer shook his head, "No."

"No," Tasto said, and the crowd walked to the next truckload.

"I'll take it right back to my farm," said Wright, who grows hay and raises beef cattle on 37 acres.

Horse owners want green, leafy hay. Cattle farmers want hay with lots of long stems, because cows -- equipped with four stomachs -- need the long fibers to move things along. Cattle farmers will accept some mold -- their animals can handle it -- if it brings down the price. Horse owners are pickier: they avoid hay with dust or any hint of mold, which can cause respiratory and digestive problems. The buyers stick fingers and noses into the bales to check.

"You want it to smell real fresh, kind of like the smell of fresh cut grass," said Grainne MacKinnon, who trains racehorses in Bowie. She buys about a hundred bales in Westminster every week.

"Fifty bales of timothy," Tasto announced. "No rain. No delivery." That is, the hay wasn't rained on while drying in the field, and the buyer has to haul it away.

Tasto handles the bids. His wife, Dixie, manages the office where people settle the deals when the bidding is done.

A sign near her desk warns buyers their checks must be approved in advance, and the Tastos try to attract sellers with this guarantee: The buyer's check will be good, or the Tastos will make it good.

Nevin Tasto, 52, the son of Carroll County dairy farmers, began his career as an auctioneer at age 16, starting with livestock, feed and machinery. In 1983, he answered the call from local farmers for auctions of hay.

They take place at the Westminster livestock auction warehouse west of town, near a sea of townhouses on Route 31. Everything from bulls to rabbits is auctioned over the course of a week. Thursday is for chickens, guinea pigs and eggs. The third Saturday of the month is for horses. Tuesday nights are for cattle, hogs, sheep and goats, which step into the auction ring, one at a time, until past midnight.

Tuesday mornings are hay time -- from 11 a.m. until early afternoon -- and an occasion for farmers to chat about who's on the mend from a combine accident, or how farmer Frank Freeser is doing since hip replacement surgery. And to commiserate about prices.

"I bought a little bit of straw, but the hay's too high," said W. L. Williams, a retired Bell Atlantic cable splicer who raises cattle in Finksburg. "I don't need it that bad, so I'll wait." But he can't bring himself to leave until the last bales are sold.

"You're always looking for that deal that might come around," he said.

Sometimes, it does.

Tasto dropped the price to $1.25 a bale before he heard a bid on a pickup truck load of alfalfa. He coaxed the price back to $1.50, from Taneytown farmer Jack Jones, who has horses and cattle to feed.

The seller, Andy Schneider of Sykesville, reluctantly agreed to that price. He and Jones conferred about how best to move the hay from one truck to another.

Tasto moved on to the next lot.

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