June 16, 2020
Get To Know Our Hay Experts - Jaren Rief, Forage Research & Sourcing Manager
Describe what you do as Oxbow’s Forage Research & Sourcing Manager.
As the title implies, there are two main parts of my job. The forage research side of my job puts focus on the science behind the hay that we source. We are constantly trying to better understand the hay through physical quality characteristics and nutritional characteristics. The sourcing management part of my job focuses on the allocation of the hay that we source at Oxbow by managing the various processes and partner relationships involved. Sourcing of our premium hay involves a team of members here at Oxbow, but most of the direct interaction with our producers is performed by myself, Oxbow’s Founder, John Miller, and Dr. Kohles.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
That’s easy - it’s the people. I obviously get to work with great people here at Oxbow, but I also get to work with some amazing individuals when I travel to see our producers. I grew up on a farm, so I feel I have a natural connection with many of the farmers we work with and can say they are not only great at what they do but are also some of the greatest human beings I have met. In many ways I don’t just consider these men and woman business partners; I consider many to be my friends.
How important are relationships in your line of work?
Relationships are essential to what we do every day. We ask a lot of our grower partners, as we have the highest standard of quality in the industry and a simple phone call just isn’t enough. It sometimes takes years to develop the level of mutual trust we have with our partners. I personally believe there is a big difference between making a business transaction over the phone or through email as opposed to standing across from somebody in the field and shaking their hand. I prefer the latter every day of the week.
What makes Oxbow hay special?
I don’t think there is just one thing that I can point to and say that’s the key. It’s a number of different factors. It may sound cliché, but it takes good people first. Our team here at Oxbow has put a lot of thought and years of development and refinement into the processes we have in place to ensure a premium quality product is grown, harvested, and packaged. Even still, we are never complacent and are always looking for ways to improve on a daily basis.
What do you look for when it comes to sourcing premium hay?
We are looking for a hay that isn’t common to find. Only a very small percentage of the hay we are looking for meets our specifications - 1% or less. There is a lot of hay grown in the United States (~129 million tons in 2019 according to the USDA NASS) but we are looking for hay that was grown in the perfect conditions by producers who put the utmost care and attention to detail into their crop. In a way, we are looking for producers that have the right philosophies, values, and work ethic first, and that the quality of hay will follow.
What are the challenges farmers face when aspiring to produce high quality hay?
With all farmers who produce crops, their best friend and worst enemy is typically weather. This is especially true for hay producers, as the hay is naturally dried in the sun for a period of up to 5 days, so all of the hard work and financial inputs these farmers have invested can hinge on what the weather does for one week. Weather isn’t the only challenge these producers encounter as they deal with many of the same issues many of us deal with such as rising costs in fuel, equipment, and taxes. They must also contend with large fluctuations in the market for what they sell their crops for which is nerve-racking compared to having the assurances of an hourly wage or salary.
How does Oxbow ensure its hay is consistently premium from bag to bag?
We control as much of the process as we possibly can. From the point of working with producers and selecting the hay to the point of the hay being packaged and shipped to our distributors, we have full control. Quality processes throughout are constantly checking to ensure packaging of a premium product is always the foremost focus.
What’s something that most customers might not realize about the hay they purchase for their small pets?
Most hay is grown in circular shaped fields which follow the path of the water irrigation systems used called center pivots. The next time you’re flying over an area of the country with an agricultural focus, look down and there’s a good chance you’ll see large, green circles. Those are the irrigated fields.