By JOHN O'CONNELL
University of Idaho Extension forage specialist Glenn Shewmaker worries hay fires are on the rise and advises producers to take precautions to avoid losses.
Shewmaker believes spontaneous combustion of hay and heat damage are steadily increasing due to the shift toward larger, 1-ton bales and the practice of cutting high-quality dairy alfalfa at its budding stage, when it's green and moist.
Last season was especially bad for hay fires in the Pacific Northwest, he said, basing his suspicions in the absence of complete data sets largely on anecdotal evidence and conversations with insurance providers.
Microbial growth is stimulated for a few weeks in hay baled at above 15 percent moisture, creating byproducts of additional moisture and heat, which can reduce nutritional value or cause spontaneous combustion.
The National Fire Incident Reporting System database reported 11 incidences of Idaho crops burning in 2012, destroying about $170,000 in commodities. Shewmaker suspects most of the fires burned hay, silage or grain. He noted the database misses many rural fire districts.
Over the past five years, Premier Insurance has processed 64 claims of hay fires in the Pacific Northwest, including 17 in 2012, said Austin Manning, a Boise broker with Premier. He estimates hay fire insurance rates have risen about 20 percent during the past three years.
"Insurance rates for hay have increased dramatically over the last couple of years, and most of that is due to losses," said Manning, who shares Shewmaker's concerns about larger and greener bales.
Brad Risenmay, vice president of Sloan & Leavitt, which has insurance offices in Othello, Wash., and Burley, Idaho, saw more hay fires when larger balers first came out in the 1990s but hasn't noticed an increase since.
Shewmaker said good record keeping and frequent testing offer protection from hay fire losses. He briefed growers at a recent Idaho Hay and Forage Association meeting about a 2008 Sacramento, Calif., court case -- Nationwide Insurance versus Delta Farms. The insurer sued a grower following a hay fire at a dairy. The grower provided journal records and testing from a certified laboratory, showing the hay had a safe 10.9 percent moisture level. Last July, a jury cleared the grower of liability, finding the fire's likely cause was damp, adjacent hay.
Idaho Hay and Forage Association President Will Ricks said the case affirms his practice of laboratory testing for every hay cutting.
"I think I was the same as everybody. Holy cow! We've got to make sure we're careful," Ricks said of the lawsuit.
Ricks advises growers to frequently test with handheld moisture probes. He's never had a hay fire, but he's observed brown spots caused by heat damage.
Blackfoot, Idaho, area farmer Dewey Stander has had two hay fires throughout the years, one of which was caused by spontaneous combustion. To improve air circulation, he no longer stacks his bales three wide, opting instead for long, single-file stacks. Stander believes the major cause of problems is growers rushing to bale moist hay to beat rainy weather.
10 steps to avoid hay fires
* Keep a journal of dates of cuttings and drying conditions.
* Monitor moisture prior to raking, tedding and baling.
* Record the day of raking, tedding and inversion, as well as baling and drying conditions.
* Test the first three bales from a field with handheld probes in two places.
* Retest if anything changes on the baler moisture meter and pressure indicator.
* Record date, time, weather conditions and moisture average and range in a journal.
* Mark and remove bales with high moisture and feed as soon as possible, avoiding storage in a stack or shed.
* Comply with insurance carriers' requirements for fire insurance coverage.
* Stack large bales with marginal moisture in a single column with no more than 500 tons per stack.
* Submit core samples to a certified lab for moisture testing and forage quality analysis.