For this installment of our “Get to Know our Hay Experts” series, we sat down with John Miller, Oxbow’s President and Founder. John founded Oxbow in 1992 and has been growing premium hay for more than 50 years.
How long have you been farming and when did you first start growing hay?
I grew up on a farm, so I’ve really been baling hay all my life. We would either put the hay in small square bales that we would transfer to a hay loft using a bale elevator, or we would stack the hay in the field in a loose haystack. My job when stacking hay was to run the “hay buck” which would run around the hay field collecting the loose hay and delivering it to the stack. From there, the loose hay would be raised high with a “stacker” and placed on the top of the stack.
After some time away from the farm as an engineer, I returned home in 1973. I first started raising hay commercially in 1980 when I formed the Oxbow Hay Company. I took extreme pride in learning how to bale super premium hay, and greatly enjoyed marketing my crop to veterinarians, dairies, and horse owners all over the country.
What made you interested in marketing your premium hay products for small pets?
I have always enjoyed marketing, and as I pondered other markets for my premium product, I started to research the pet market. And when I went to the pet stores in Omaha and Lincoln, it became clear to me that my hay was superior to the product that was on the shelves. And thus, Oxbow Pet Products was born in 1992 in the front of our garage.
What do you enjoy most about growing hay?
I love the challenge of being the best. I love the smell of fresh hay. I love the satisfaction of working hard and producing the best hay possible. And I really like the fact that growing hay typically requires fewer inputs such as fertilizer and chemicals. Growing hay is very good for the soil and will naturally increase the number of earthworms and the tilth of the soil. There is also less erosion from growing hay. Hay is an all-around more natural crop and better way to care for the soil when compared to raising other agricultural products.
Tell us about the Oxbow family of farms. What do you look for in a hay growing partner?
Oxbow hay growers must have high integrity and be committed to being the best. This is a huge commitment in the super-premium hay business because you never know when the hay is going to be “just right” for baling. The right time is almost always at night and can be anytime between sunset and sunrise. So, you spend a lot of time waiting for Mother Nature to tell you the time is right for making premium hay.
There is a strong bond between premium hay producers because we all know how hard it is to produce this type of hay. The majority of hay producers do not have this commitment, but when you find another hay grower who shares your passion, you can’t help but form a bond.
What makes Oxbow hay special?
Oxbow hay is produced by growers who are committed to excellence. The passion that our family of hay growers has for producing super-premium hay is very similar to those who want to be the very best in any other profession. It may sound cliché, but it truly takes “the heart of a champion” to grow great hay.
What advice do you have for pet owners when it comes to selecting high-quality hay for their pets?
There are some key characteristics of premium hay to look for. The hay should be soft and pliable, smell fresh, and contain a good balance of leaves, stems, and seed heads. Something that’s sometimes overlooked by pet parents is that it’s also important to feed a variety of high-quality hays. This helps your pets to learn how to be flexible throughout the hay growing season because you never know what type of hay is going to be available for your pet at any given point in time. Mother Nature ultimately controls which variety of hay will be the best at any point in the year.
What’s one thing about growing premium hay that most small pet owners might not know?
For those without experience growing, baling, and storing hay, it’s difficult to imagine how many variables there are in producing super premium hay. Every field is different. Every day is different. Every hour is different. There is only a small window of time when the weather and hay conditions are just right. Producing super premium hay is not the same as producing “widgets” or any other manufactured product. Every step on the Oxbow hay journey requires many people who are committed and passionate about what they do. And that is the Oxbow pledge to you and your pets.