Mid-Columbia hay farmers hopeful to finish year solid as fourth cutting begins

Mid-Columbia hay farmers are looking at a solid year as they prepare for their fourth cutting of alfalfa this week.

At Manterola Farms north of Pasco, David Manterola plans to start cutting his fourth alfalfa harvest today.

"Looks to me like yields will be pretty good," he said.

But he's pessimistic that his fourth cutting will make good dairy hay because of all the heat it weathered this summer. The first and fourth cuttings of alfalfa typically make dairy hay, while the second and third cuttings feed horses and are exported.

Manterola said he had his best first cutting of alfalfa this year, making high quality dairy hay. That hay also was harvested at a time when prices were up.

Alfalfa handles the heat well, Manterola said. Farmers were watering more than usual, but it wasn't a huge issue.

But heat can cut into the feed value, Manterola said. Dairy farmers are looking for high protein alfalfa with low acid digestible fiber. Their goal in choosing feed is to have their cows produce a high amount of quality milk.

Heat makes hay grow and mature faster, said Drex Gauntt of Gauntt Farms near Wallula. To make dairy hay, that means cutting early, but seeing a 30 percent to 40 percent decline in yields. Letting it continue to grow means it will be more mature than the earlier, cooler season hay.

Washington farmers are expected to harvest slightly more alfalfa hay this year, about 2.2 million tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While statewide acreage is up by 60,000 acres to 470,000, the yield per acre is expected to be a bit lower than last year.

Franklin County farmers grow more than 54,000 acres of alfalfa, while Walla Walla County has more than 10,000 acres and Benton County has about 9,000.

Hay, the state's fourth top crop after apples, wheat and potatoes, was worth $678.7 million in 2012, according to the USDA.

Farmers cut hay with a machine called a swather. It then dries for multiple days and is raked before baling.

"This has been a good solid year for alfalfa," Manterola said.

This year also has been an improvement over last year, when weather hurt the Mid-Columbia crop, Manterola said. There was quite a bit of rain and windblown hay.

Mother Nature was kinder this year. Quality is better than average, and quality influences how much farmers get per ton of hay, he said.

Some rain on the second cutting did affect the hay quality for some farmers, Gauntt said.

Gauntt said he'll start his fourth cutting around Sept. 8. He planted his alfalfa hay for next year between Aug. 5 and 15, and is already seeing that crop emerge.

The market has been fairly stable, with prices at a level farmers can live with, Manterola said.

With hay, farmers have to be salesmen, marketing their own hay to brokers. The price isn't set on the trading floor as with grain, or by a contract, as with potatoes and sweet corn. A significant portion of Columbia Basin hay is grown each year for export, mainly to Japan.

The demand for export hay has been strong, Gauntt said. Washington farmers have gotten a bit of a break with California's drought.

California -- which each year has to import hay for its own needs -- has needed even more this year because the amount its farmers grow is down with the drought, he said. The states that sell hay to California also export that hay to the same foreign countries where Washington hay is sold.

Having more of that hay used domestically means less competition for Washington farmers, Gauntt said. Mid-Columbia farmers are at a disadvantage because it costs more to export hay from the Port of Seattle than it does from the Port of Long Beach.

In the past, Gauntt said Washington and Oregon hay farmers could depend on quality to beat out other hay growers for customers. But now, he said they also have to price hay more competitively to sell it.

Manterola said many are waiting to see what happens with corn prices, since that will affect the feed decision dairy farmers make. If the cost between alfalfa and corn is too unbalanced, farmers will use more corn and less alfalfa, softening the demand and pushing down prices.

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