Wallula farmer Drex Gauntt started harvesting his alfalfa hay a little earlier than normal thanks to the Mid-Columbia’s mild winter and warmer than normal temperatures.
“It’s nice and green, we’ve got good size on it,” he said, as he watched a swather start the first cutting Wednesday morning.
“The weather has treated us well, and we are expecting great quality because of it,” he said.
He’s among the first to start harvesting Washington’s sixth most most valuable crop, worth $675 million statewide in 2013.
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Washington farmers are expected to harvest about 830,000 acres of hay this year, a 5 percent drop from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A decline was expected because a three-month slowdown of exports out of West Coast ports meant some of the hay harvested last year couldn’t get through.
One hay exporter estimated the labor-dispute-related slowdown held back about two months worth of hay that still will be available when this year’s crop is up for sale.
California’s drought means the quality of hay that farmers there have been able to produce is down compared with last year, he said.
“We think that the market this year is going to recognize quality hay to a little bit higher degree than they have in the past, so we are ready to go,” Gauntt said.
The first and last cuttings of hay tend to be more profitable for farmers because the alfalfa hay has more nutritional value, which is something dairy farmers look for.
Dairy farmers tend to want high protein, which translates into more milk from their cows, Gauntt said.
Growing during the cooler part of the season means the hay doesn’t experience quite as much stress. And Gauntt is cutting his two-foot high hay before the alfalfa goes to bud. Once that happens, the plant starts sending nutrition to the budding flower to make seeds.
Cutting now is a trade off because it means Gauntt will get fewer bales than if he waited closer to budding, which could be in early- to mid-May this year.
During hay harvest, a swather cuts the hay close to the ground, leaving about an inch of stubble behind. That hay stays in the field for a week, hopefully, but that depends on the weather.
Then, a baler comes through and binds the hay into different sizes, from massive one-ton bales to two-string bales weighing 90 to 100 pounds.
Gauntt expects to continue cutting through the weekend.