Initial hay harvest delayed by as much as a month
By DAN WHEAT
Frost, rain and cool weather has damaged and delayed first-cutting hay throughout the West, which will widen the price gap between top- and poorer-quality hay.
That's the assessment of Seth Hoyt, hay market analyst and editor of the Hoyt Report, a hay market newsletter in Ione, Calif., south of Sacramento.
"Nevada has some nice-looking hay and it's testing well, but tonnage will be way down because of a colder than normal April and May," said Hoyt, who tracks hay in seven Western states.
Other than Nevada, first-cutting quality has generally been poor, Hoyt said. Unless good fall weather extends the season, many growers may lose a cutting.
The San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys are finishing up the second cutting and Kern County, Calif., is into its third.
The Pacific Northwest is just finishing its first cutting and is about one month behind normal.
The first cutting is usually highest in nutrient value and favored for export, mostly to Japan. But quality has suffered and the "export market is in turmoil," said Chep Gauntt, past president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association and a large hay grower near Kennewick, Wash.
Prices were expected to be 10 to 20 percent higher than last year because of less acreage and inventory carryover this year, but now the market is unsettled, Gauntt said. Top-quality first-cutting hay is $150 to $160 a ton, but there is very little of it, he said.
There is less acreage this year because prices fell last year due to too much carryover and an abundance of acreage planted, he said.
Exporters now don't know whether to settle for the bulk of the first cutting, which is lesser quality than usual, or to wait for the second cutting, Gauntt said.
"They will look all over Washington, Oregon and Idaho and see that it's all about the same, that good hay is 145 in relative feed value," he said.
Normally, feed value, a scientific rating of protein and fiber, is 160 to 175 on the first cutting, he said. Buyers will adjust their thinking to accept 110 to 145 and begin buying in a couple of weeks.
The first cutting typically is largest in volume and value. Some has been so late in harvest that it blossomed before it was cut, losing nutrient value. Much was raked and re-raked because of rain, turning brown and losing green nutrients.
Randy Senn, an Ephrata, Wash., grower, normally starts cutting on May 22 but was delayed by rain until June 15. As of June 18, he still had several alfalfa fields and an orchard grass field to cut.
"Fields are more mature than we want," he said. "It's not the best for milk cattle, but it's OK for horses."
Senn said he's too far behind to get a fourth cutting this season.
"We will get two more and they won't be real mature because they'll be so late," he said.
Gauntt started his second cutting June 21 while others were finishing the first cutting. He said some growers had re-raked wet hay so long that they were damaging new growth by driving on their fields, probably losing 10 to 15 percent of their tonnage.
Second- and third-cutting quality in Washington's Columbia Basin won't be bad, but they will be lighter in volume and less than 30 days apart instead of a normal 35 to 40 days, he said.
Higher elevation hay may maintain its quality as it is slower to mature, he said.
Dennis Strom, president of the Idaho Hay and Forage Association and a grower in Hill City, said May frosts yellowed and reduced alfalfa quality. Rain delayed the first cutting three weeks, he said. It's too early to know if the delay will jeopardize the fourth cutting, he said.
Landon Giessner, crop manager of Corder Farms in McArthur, Calif., said frost and rain has damaged and delayed the first cutting in northeastern California. But it's not as bad as last year when rain devastated the first cutting. Harvest is two to three weeks behind schedule, putting the fourth cutting of alfalfa and third cutting of orchard grass in doubt, he said.