Columbia Basin battles first-cutting rain

Ben Schaapman, Quincy grower, looks at green alfalfa under rain-damaged brown swaths in a field near George, Wash., on May 23. He planned to let it dry a few more days before raking and baling.

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

WARDEN, Wash. -- For a while it looked like Columbia Basin growers might actually get first-cutting alfalfa put up this year without rain. But the rain came the night of May 20 and lingered for several days, shutting down harvest for about a week.

Growers around Pasco got about half their crop baled and off their fields before the rain but were caught with most of the rest on the ground, said Shawn Clausen, a Warden grower and board member of the Washington State Hay Growers Association.

Some 60 miles to the north, around Warden, the crop is later than Pasco. Only 10 to 20 percent was cut before the rain, Clausen said.

"I've got maybe 250 acres down, probably 15 percent of my production," he said on May 22. "The longer the rest stays up, the more over mature it gets and the feed quality goes down. Fiber goes up, protein goes down and dairies don't want it."

Then it becomes feeder hay for cattle and the price falls from the $200 to $220 per ton range down to $160 or $170, he said.

Growers with hay down had to leave it on the ground longer to dry before raking and baling. Rain and sun turned the top layer brown, lessening quality.

Clausen hoped to resume cutting May 24 or 25. The longer his down time the greater his harvest time crunch. It takes him about two weeks to get his 1,900 acres cut, raked and baled. He needed to get it done so growing time for second cutting wasn't delayed.

First-cutting, with more growing time than later cuttings, usually has the best feed value for dairies, he said.

"Ideally, first-cutting is where 35 percent of your money comes in so when you miss that it's tough to make it up on the next," he said.

Rain appeared heavier to the north than in Pasco, said Chep Gauntt, a Pasco grower, who said he got half his 1,200 acres baled before the storm and sold to Zen-Noh Hay for export to Japan. Gauntt said he started early and thought this might be the year the first-cutting rain cycle was broken. First-cutting has been rained on in the basin for the past four years with 2010 the most devastating, he said.

North of Warden, near Ephrata, grower Duane Hubbard cut his entire 220 acres and only had three loads baled and under cover before the rain.

"I cut early with the thought I might get it out before it started raining this year. It didn't work out so well," he said.

Around Quincy and George, Ben Schaapman had 500 acres down with 320 baled before the rain.

"We're OK. I'm not jumping for joy, but I'm not crying the blues, either," he said. "We should do all right as low-quality export or low-quality dairy. It depends on how much more rain we get."

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