Tough weather may mean hay shortage

Dan Wheat/Capital Press A swather cuts alfalfa on Dan HerringÕs farm near Quincy, Wash., on Sept. 23. This field bloomed before it could be cut and was delayed by rain.

Some growers see prices slide because of poor quality

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

It's been a dismal year for many West Coast hay growers as rain and cool weather on first and last cuttings have affected tonnage, quality and prices.

Supplies will be tight this winter and there could be a hay shortage by spring or before, sources say.

Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah were most affected.

Central California did better, but overall it was a challenging season with weather impacting yields, said Seth Hoyt, a hay market analyst in Ione, Calif., who keeps the pulse of hay markets across most of the West.

"We've got the smallest fourth cutting I've seen in years. I think we're going into winter with less hay than Washington has had in many years," said Chep Gauntt, a Kennewick grower and past president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association.

"I think we will see a hay shortage next spring and it will show up before that. Prices already have started up in the last two months, not big but gradually," Gauntt said.

Acreage has been down and will continue down as less alfalfa has been planted this fall as growers continue to switch to wheat and corn that bring better prices, he said.

"You can grow a circle of corn and get the same price for less risk," Gauntt said. Field corn is selling for $180 a ton versus $140 to $170 per ton for hay, he said.

Mid-September rain hit Washington growers when 30 to 50 percent of their fourth cuttings were down, Gauntt said.

They had anticipated a nice fourth cutting, but now may see prices slide $40 to $50 a ton because of poor quality, Hoyt said.

Growers were raking and re-raking to dry it out. Growers north of Moses Lake probably won't get a fourth cutting, Gauntt said.

Dennis Strom, president of the Idaho Hay and Forage Association, said southern Idaho may have good fourth and fifth cuttings if good weather with temperatures in the 80s and 90s holds. Growers could make up what they lost on rain-damaged first cutting, he said.

Certain scenarios could lead to a hay shortage, Strom said. Fires have depleted winter range in southern Idaho, and a hard winter and rising milk prices, which would allow dairies to buy more hay, could cause a shortage. A light winter would mean adequate supply, he said.

Exporters have been looking for hay in Idaho, he said.

Normally, exporters take most of their hay from Washington and Oregon, said Bob Eckenberg, an exporter in Mattawa, Wash.

But many exporters bought hay that normally goes domestic from California this year when Washington's first cutting was so poor, he said.

The volume of Pacific Northwest summer alfalfa was probably down 25 percent because of bad weather, Eckenberg said.

Exporters returned to buying Washington and Oregon hay on second and third cuttings but not as much as desired, he said.

Weather should improve for the second half of Washington's fourth cutting and hopefully export volumes will pick up in winter, he said.

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