New technique lets grower bale alfalfa when it's moist
By DAN WHEAT
GEORGE, Wash. -- A fourth and final fresh cutting of alfalfa lay in the field.
It was the morning of Nov. 5, late for this sort of thing in the northern Columbia Basin.
One week later the field was covered with 3 to 4 inches of snow.
The hay was baled three days after it was cut, stacked two bales high and tightly wrapped in two long rolls of plastic on the edge of the field. After fermenting 30 days it would be ready to feed.
Ron Goodrich, farm manager of MTA Farms near George for Anderson Hay & Grain Co. of Ellensburg, spotted the perfect little weather window to do the job.
He was sure it raised an eyebrow or two among his neighbors.
Cutting green chop this far north this late in the year is not unusual but baling is.
The hay was only able to dry to about 50 percent moisture, which is still way too moist for conventional hay. But the tight wrap keeps air out, preventing spontaneous combustion as the hay heats up, ferments and then cools.
It's best used as feed for local dairies and feedlots right after that but can store for about a year if the wrapping isn't damaged, said Bill Lund, MTA harvest manager.
Goodrich, Lund and Kyle Knight, their supervisor at Anderson Hay & Grain Co., decided to plastic wrap late baling for the first time a year ago to maximize season production that had been delayed by a cool, wet spring.
They put up about 1,000 acres.
It went well enough that they did it again this year on 270 acres at Adams and Road 4 S.W. with a yield averaging 1.25 tons per acre.
Lund waited for a heavy frost for dormancy before cutting to allow the field to winter properly. Cutting ahead of dormancy without time for re-growth could damage the alfalfa plants.
About a week earlier they harvested 140 acres of Timothy hay closer to George in the same fashion.
Asked if this will become an annual practice, Goodrich said, "Not necessarily, but it's another tool in the tool box, depending on what mother nature does."
It might as well be done, he said, if a field has enough late growth because it's a way to make some money instead of just mowing off old growth in the spring for no return.
Baling and fermenting late cuttings is a relatively new practice in Central Washington, Goodrich said.
He's heard of some growers doing it on all cuttings in the Lower Yakima Valley but doesn't know of anyone else doing it this far north. He believes it will become more common.