When people visit Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, it is a near certainty they will see an animal eating hay at some point. Odds are most people never wondered where that hay came from. As it turns out, a lot of planning, care and old-fashioned hard work went into the mouthful that white rhino is enjoying.
Fossil Rim does not buy hay, which is crucial to the park’s operation with the vast majority of the 1,100 animals being hay consumers.
“It’s incredibly important,” said Kelley Snodgrass, chief operating officer. “Not just from a financial standpoint, but also a quality assurance situation. We get the type and quantity of hay we want when we want it.”
Hop in the time machine back to 1984 when Fossil Rim opened to the public, and Snodgrass notes the evolution of the hay process through the years.
“For many years, we produced all the hay we needed on Fossil Rim property,” he said. “As time went on, for various reasons including drought, we had to call on friends and organizations with nearby properties to utilize their land. It’s helped tremendously.”
Different faces have been primarily responsible for the hay production over time.
“We had a really good hay guy here, Rodney Marsh, who was actually also an animal care specialist,” Snodgrass said. “It’s never just one person, because generally rain means all your hay fields are ready at the same time. There’s an old saying, ‘make hay while the sun shines,’ and it’s true. After Rodney left in 2004, I shared the duties with our former director of support services, Darryl Morris.”
Another big change came in 2009, when Daniel Branham became the head honcho of hay. In fact, Branham, support services co-manager (maintenance), recalled the specific day – April 27 – off the top of his head.
“Daniel has done an excellent job since he took over,” Snodgrass said. “He’s really good at it – the ‘hay whisperer,’ if you will. He has a feel for the land and is very careful with the equipment.
“Now he has Trent Sandlin helping him, who’s really good with the equipment, as well. They’ve been a dynamic duo this year on hay production.”
Branham said more than 400 acres of hay on and off Fossil Rim property are being cut and baled this year with each one of the multiple cycles, easily the most in the wildlife center’s history.
“When considering how our hay production has grown, it’s important to remember that back in ’84 we had an animal care staff of three who also dealt with hay and the drive-thru traffic,” Snodgrass said. “Donations of agricultural equipment have been upgrades for us and allowed us to bale more hay in a shorter time.”
“We always tried to produce quality hay, but now Daniel is doing things more appropriate for our soil. He takes soil samples and fertilizes accordingly.”
While Branham got a laugh from the hay whisperer reference, he points to longevity and luck.
“I would say experience is what helps me most,” he said. “I’ve been farming hay since I was old enough to drive a tractor. I’m still learning, that’s for sure, and a lot of it is experimentation. Farming is the biggest gamble you’ve ever seen.
“You put down fertilizer hoping it’s going to rain. So far, I’ve hit it pretty good, but I think it’s just the luck of the draw.”
While he simplified the process down to “cut, rake, bale,” in reality there is a bit more to it.
Only 100 of the more than 400 acres of land producing Fossil Rim hay this year are on wildlife center property, and seven acres of that is sudangrass, while the rest is coastal bermudagrass.
“We don’t plant coastal, but all coastal gets fertilized,” Branham said. “You have to feed it if you want anything from it. Usually, it’s 250 pounds of fertilizer per acre, but we also use a lot of the compost we make here in place of fertilizer during the years we have enough.”
Most years, the fertilizing is done in April, but a wet spring pushed that back to June in 2016.
“We do try to aerate the soil every year and get oxygen to the (grass) roots,” Branham said. “We’ll just continue to cut and bale all the way to the first frost.”
Branham keeps an especially close eye on the weather when he’s considering cutting the coastal.
“If you cut coastal and then it gets rained on, it does reduce the quality,” he said. “At least when it’s hot and dry we only need to wait a few hours or a day to bale it. If it rains, it may be three days before you can bale it.”
Snodgrass did reference Sandlin, senior grounds maintenance technician, as half of the “dynamic duo,” and he hit the ground running after arriving at Fossil Rim in December.
“Trent has grabbed this job by the horns, for sure,” Branham said. “I think he’s really good at what he does, and he’s made it where I can go home some nights and also be able to do the maintenance side of my job.
Both of them can operate all the related equipment: two tractors – one with a cab and one without, a hay rake, a round baler, a square baler, a cutter, a mower conditioner, a shredder and a pasture aerator.
“The square baler is definitely the most challenging part,” Sandlin said. There’s an art to running that thing. You have to get in the field and play with it. It took me at least a couple of hours to finally get it running smooth.
“You have to put all your focus into it the entire time. What’s going in it, how fast are you running, how are the bales looking? If you hurt its feelings, it will hurt you.”
Branham pointed to “old-school” technology for the challenge.
“For the round baler, you sit there and look at a computer screen,” he said. “The square bailer is manual – no electronics.”
“This is the first cab tractor I’ve used, and we are both thankful for it,” Sandlin said.
It takes a village
With three of every four hay bales this year entering Fossil Rim from other properties in the area, Branham and Sandlin spend plenty of time outside the park.
First, there are entities like Dinosaur Valley State Park (DVSP) and High Hope Sanctuary lending their land. DVSP is the leading off-property contributor with seven pastures totaling 75 acres being used for Fossil Rim hay.
“Kelley approached Billy Paul (DVSP superintendent from 1982-2010) about possibly growing hay in our park,” said Jason Sanchez, DVSP lead ranger. “It’s a win-win for us and Fossil Rim. Fossil Rim puts in the labor and pays for fuel, but not the hay. It helps us out by reducing our fuel and labor costs – I don’t have to pay anybody to mow these pastures, so it’s a great land management tool.”
Branham tries to cut and bale at DVSP along the same timetable as his Fossil Rim activities. It is primarily coastal bermudagrass with some Johnsongrass, as well.
“Fossil Rim will do us a service sometimes and mow pastures they don’t even need to use, but they’ll go ahead and take the excess hay,” Sanchez said. “That really helps us maintain this land.”
Being friends with his Fossil Rim contacts makes it a smooth working relationship for Sanchez.
“Daniel is a really good man,” he said. “You can tell the rapport we have by how we joke with each other. If we need Fossil Rim’s help, I just call him and vice versa.
“Trent is a great person. His mother worked (at DVSP) for years and I’ve known him all his life.
“As far as Dinosaur Valley, Fossil Rim and other entities in the county, we’re all part of this local community and on the same team. The more we can help each other out, the better off we’re all going to be.”
Regarding individual landowners contributing to the hay cause, those involved in 2016 include John Holden, Bobby Hill, Jeff Payne, Randy Haney and Royce Novak. Snodgrass is in the mix, as well, utilizing 12 acres of his property.
“Usually, we cut and bale, the landowner takes care of the fertilizing and we keep half the hay,” Branham said. “Some, like Holden (61 acres) and Hill (50 acres), let us have all the hay, and in those cases we still fertilize and treat the field like our own. Mr. Holden is actually on the Fossil Rim Board of Directors.”
Snodgrass knows how much Fossil Rim has come to count on these arrangements.
“Obviously, we’re very appreciative of it,” he said. “These people are contributing to the conservation of these threatened and endangered animal species, and to the sustainability of Fossil Rim. There is absolutely a deeply felt gratitude for that. We hope we’re helping them out in some way, too.”
Fossil Rim staff chip in when it comes to loading hay at DVSP and unloading it back at the wildlife center.
“The help we get from our coworkers, I think that is one of the biggest teambuilding activities we can do,” Branham said. “They might not admit it, but we have a blast out there loading hay – at least for the first hauling of the year.”
A numbers game
“Producing more hay than we actually need puts us in position to survive a drought, which has now been the case for consecutive years,” Snodgrass said. “We carefully figure out how many bales we need to use per day and adjust accordingly.”
For Branham, he sets the goal of 500 round bales and 3,000-4,000 square bales produced each year.
“We don’t need all the hay we are going to produce this year, but you never know what next year is going to bring,” he said. “It will still be good hay next year, and we can always sell it if needed.”
Fossil Rim’s barn holds approximately 3,500 square bales.
“We’ll fill it up to the brim and top it off right before the first frost,” Branham said. “It wasn’t a cold winter last year, so that was the most hay I’ve ever seen left in the barn. We have several storage areas for round bales, but they aren’t covered.”
When he considers the needs of Fossil Rim animals, Snodgrass’s figures are just a bit under what Branham shoots for.
“Typically, if we can produce about 3,200 square bales and 400-500 round bales per year, we’re okay,” Snodgrass said. “Ideally, that leaves a few excess bales for the following year. If our land does produce quality grazing opportunities, we prefer that to hay.
“Hay is counted on during droughts and winter, so our needs can change each year. Winter is the main need for hay by far, followed by summer.”
Some Fossil Rim species are particularly adept at putting away the hay.
“White rhinos are one of our major hay-consuming species,” Snodgrass said. “The sable herd is roughly 30 animals, and they can eat a lot of hay. I would also point to the gemsbok, addax, zebras and Przewalski’s horses.”
Fossil Rim guests may see some species eating what looks like green hay, but it is an entirely different animal.
“Alfalfa is a staple for our browser species like giraffes, bongo, kudu and addra gazelle,” Snodgrass said. “We can’t grow it here, so it has to be purchased.”
Haymakers with love
If Branham and Sandlin did not really care about their efforts in the hay department, it would be a shame for the animals.
“It feels good having a job where I contribute to something,” Sandlin said. “You can see people like those in animal care appreciate what we do, and that’s nice to know. We try to do the best we can. There’s no cutting corners while we’re doing this.”
“I think we take extreme pride in this,” Branham said. “The reason we produce our own hay is because we know what’s going into it. We can cut it exactly when it’s ready and we have the equipment to do it. I know our animal staff likes that we are producing our own hay, and without it Fossil Rim wouldn’t quite be the same.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate