WARDEN, Wash. — The first-cutting of alfalfa in the Columbia Basin is about 70% complete but has been plagued by random rain showers throughout the region.

It hasn’t been the best first-cutting, but it hasn’t been the worst either, says Shawn Clausen, 42, a Warden hay grower for 20 years.

“I would say at least 50% of the hay has been rained on. That’s my guesstimate. It took some color out, but some of it was light rain (that didn’t do) much more than bleached it. Some has been a struggle to get moisture down enough to go export,” Clausen said.

Clausen began cutting May 20, about five days later than he wanted to because of weather. It takes him 10 days to cut his 1,400 acres of alfalfa and seven more to get it raked and baled. On June 5 he was raking.

“Mother nature definitely is making it a challenge to find enough export quality with the amount of rain damage and now over-mature first cutting,” said Mike Hajny, owner of Hajny Trading LLC, an exporter in Ellensburg.

A lot of early premium hay has moisture issues and went to domestic dairies, Hajny said. Exporters are getting more standard grade than premium for export from first-cutting and will be looking for premium supply from later cuttings, he said.

With Pacific Northwest hay stocks down 29% from last year on May 1, Clausen and other growers are hopeful for a good season and good prices.

“Buyers are looking but I haven’t sold any yet. I’m waiting to get it all in the bale and then know how to market it,” Clausen said, adding that buyers and sellers are in the “price discovery mode” right now.

“If you have high quality hay that tests well for protein, I think it should be $200-plus per ton,” he said.

Some early producers in Pasco received well above $200 but sacrificed tonnage for supreme quality and should be rewarded, he said.

The gap between feeder and export quality hay prices narrowed to almost non-existent because of short supply but now is beginning to widen again, he said.

USDA basin price reports as of May 31 showed basin supreme big bale alfalfa at $223 to $230 per ton, premium at $225 and utility to fair at $160 to $170. Small bale premium was $230.

First-cutting usually tests higher for protein, and dairymen and exporters like that because “it puts milk in the tank locally and overseas,” Clausen said.

Yields are “surprisingly close to average” at 2 to 3 tons per acre, depending on the age of the alfalfa stand, he said. He expected yields to be light because of the late, cold winter that delayed stands coming out of dormancy by two to four weeks.

A week of hot weather reduced protein but the hay is still exportable, just at lower prices, he said.

Despite the long, cold winter, the basin is on schedule for a normal four cuttings of alfalfa in the north and some fifth cuttings in the south, Clausen said.

Central Washington field reporter

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