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September 23, 2010   Email to Friend 

OYFF/HAY & FORAGE: 'Round Midnight, Whitaker Keeps Cuttin'
By Darryal Ray

Jeff and Randi Whitaker with sons Aiden and Keegan.
When the days grow long and the nights even longer, Jeff Whitaker dials up his buddy, Michael Brewer, to bale him out.

"We'll mow hay a lot of mornings until 1 and 2 o'clock," Jeff explained. "When we start getting sleepy, we'll just get out our cell phones and talk to each other to keep ourselves awake and motivated. We'll talk about anything as long as it keeps us awake. We have mowed hay as late as 2:10 a.m., but most times, we'll quit 'round midnight. If it's not been a good day, we'll truck on. But if I'm nearly out of fuel, that's probably a good time to quit rather than calling my wife at 11:30 and saying, 'Bring me some fuel right quick' and having her get two little boys up."

Make hay while you can -- that's the lesson Whitaker has learned quickly. It was only three years ago that he got into the hay business in the DeKalb County community of Henagar, but now he's baling for the public and expects to reach 2,700 rolls this year. It's a quick rise that enabled Whitaker, along with wife Randi and sons Aiden (7) and Keegan (5) to capture the Hay & Forage Division of the Outstanding Young Farm Family competition.

"This year was a battle with the rain. It slowed us down a lot," Jeff said. "We sat for probably two weeks waiting on the right weather conditions. If you haven't got the weather for it, you can't do it. And I'm one who doesn't like to start too early. We usually don't start cutting until the end of May."

But the rains didn't last -- and when they did come, they were scattered.

"Everybody made hay last year, and we carried over a bunch of it," Jeff said. "But this year, we can't make enough. We get two or three phone calls a week from people wanting to know if we've got any."

With 200 acres of their own and another 50 rented acres, the Whitakers grow only fescue and orchard grass for area cattle farmers. By mid-August, they had sold 900 round bales and baled another 900 rolls for his seven word-of-mouth customers, all of whom he deals with on a "handshake" basis.

"I have a list that I go by every year," Jeff explained. "When I first started out, there are guys who got with me, and they're first on my list every year. About February of next year, we'll start down our list again."

He's careful, however, to make sure he's not causing any ill will before he takes on a new customer. "Anybody who calls me, I find out who was baling their hay to make sure there are no hard feelings," he said. "I might even call the person that was baling it before to make sure nothing had happened that might make me not want to do it. But everybody I bale for I know pretty well."

Another thing he won't do, Jeff said, is square bales.

"I prefer round bales where you sit in an air-conditioned tractor, you load 'em on a truck and you go home at the end of the day and you aren't give out," said Jeff. "Now, my buddy Michael square bales and makes his own cattle feed. We're about to do a Bermuda field of his, and I told him, 'I sure do dread it.' We borrowed a square baler, and I told him, 'I'm going to square bale it, but when I get done, I'm going to the house. Good luck getting it loaded!'

"It's a job getting square bales on a truck," he added. "Michael's lucky, though. He knows a bunch of high school kids who play football and they'll load the hay to work out, and that makes it easier. They'll get out there and bow up on each other, and Michael and I will say, 'Wait 'til they get 15 more years on them -- they'll figure it out.' We did."

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