David Manterola is looking for green alfalfa hay that keeps its leaves.
The challenge of making the perfect bale is what Manterola of Manterola Farms near Pasco says he loves about growing hay.
Leaf retention and the green color are among the characteristics necessary for hay to be exported, Manterola said.
And a significant portion of Columbia Basin hay is grown each year for export, mainly to Japan. Drex Gauntt of Gauntt Farms near Wallula said almost every bale he grows is exported.
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Statewide, about 35 percent of hay heads to countries like Japan, Korea and China, said Gauntt, past president of the Washington Hay Growers Association.
High quality, high volume and consistency are what makes hay from the Columbia Basin so desirable, Gauntt said.
Hay is Washington’s fourth highest valued crop, at $713.6 million for 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s after apples, wheat and potatoes.
Washington has 780,000 acres of hay, with about 380,000 of them alfalfa. In 2011, about 3.4 million tons of hay was produced by Washington farmers.
Alfalfa is used as animal feed by dairies and feedlots, which makes it the building block for other foods Americans eat, Gauntt said, such as ice cream, cheese, yogurt, milk and beef.
Benton County has about 14,000 acres of alfalfa and 5,000 acres of other types of hay, while Franklin County has about 84,000 acres of alfalfa and 31,000 acres of other types of hay.
Alfalfa and timothy are perennials, but Manterola said growers tend to leave alfalfa in for about three years and timothy for about two years before planting a different crop.
Manterola said he uses sweet corn, potatoes, beans and wheat as rotation crops. Leaving the same crop in the field too long can cause disease to accumulate; rotating crops helps improve the soil health.
Alfalfa covers about 40 percent of Gauntt’s 2,000 acres, with the rest a mix of timothy, wheat, field corn and sweet corn.
Alfalfa is planted between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15, with timothy planted a little later, Manterola said. His three-week-long first cutting for alfalfa is in May, with the fourth and last cutting done by Oct. 1.
Timothy is cut around June 1 and Sept. 1, he said.
The protein-rich first and fourth cuttings of alfalfa, a legume, tend to be better for dairies, while the second and third tend to be better for horses, Manterola said.
Timothy, a grass hay cut two times a year, does well as a horse feed, said Manterola, who has about 400 acres of it.
The yield was stable and the quality good last year, Gauntt said.
Manterola, Gauntt and other Columbia Basin farmers were on their fourth cutting of alfalfa in September.
Gauntt said after cutting, they wait for the hay to dry, rake it using a machine to expose the bottom, and let drying continue.
He and his father, Chep Gauntt, have a crew of nine.
When it gets close to hay-cutting time, Manterola said he goes out every hour to feel it.
Once his 1,700 acres of alfalfa is ready, Manterola and his crew of 10 will cut it with a machine called a swather. It then dries for about four days and is raked before baling.
Manterola said he wants the hay to contain about 15 percent moisture when baled. If baled with too much moisture, farmers run the risk of mold or burn, where the quality of the hay is damaged.
Manterola said he typically waits 35 days between cutting. He prefers to cut when the hay is in the bud stage, before any blooms.
During a week in September, Manterola and his workers were stacking three-string bales of hay, getting them ready to be tarped. Three-string bales weigh 130 pounds and are what most want for export, he said.
Stacks are wrapped to prevent rain from penetrating. If a gravel pad isn’t available, Manterola’s workers will stack hay on top of a tarp, and then Tarp It, the company he hires, wraps the hay “like a loaf of bread.”
For export, Manterola said his bales are compressed into a smaller bale before being loaded in a container.
Manterola said he sells his hay to Zen-Noh Hay, a Japanese company with a hay cubing plant in Pasco, as well as to other companies.
With hay, farmers have to be salesmen, marketing their own hay to brokers, Gauntt said. The price isn’t set on the trading floor as with grain, or by a contract, as with potatoes and sweet corn.
“We make it to sell, so that’s what we do,” he said. “We try to actively market what we make.”
Lared Whitby, co-owner of Whitby Farms and Whitby Ag Enterprises in Moses Lake, said his family grows about 50 percent of the alfalfa they export. The rest they buy from other Columbia Basin farmers. They farm more than 6,500 acres in Washington and Oregon, with alfalfa representing about 4,500 acres.
Whitby said when he inspects hay stacks, he is looking for weeds and dirt. He won’t buy hay that is contaminated by either.
“I buy it based on what I see,” he said.
And from every lot of alfalfa bought from farmers or produced themselves, Whitby said the core is sampled and sent to a lab to determine protein, fiber and nitrates.
The hay is trucked from Moses Lake to Seattle or Tacoma, where it is shipped by boat, Whitby said. Shipping costs are the biggest challenge, he said.
Whitby said they sent between eight to 14 containers to Seattle and Tacoma daily in 2012. Most containers weigh 27.55 to 29.2 tons. Each year, his company ships 60,627 to 71,650 tons of hay.
In addition to alfalfa, Whitby Ag Enterprises also exports timothy, oat hay, orchardgrass and grass straw.
The export market has been good, although it was negatively affected in 2008 with the recession, he said.
The export market has been growing in recent years, with the Middle East opening up more and China’s demand increasing, Gauntt said.
Washington is becoming known as the premier supplier of horse-grade timothy, he said.
Whitby Ag Enterprises sells directly to retailers and warehouses in Japan, Whitby said. Those companies then sell the alfalfa to the end user.