Conditions said to be ideal
By Kathleen Ellyn
Wallowa County Chieftain
After several years of low prices, primarily due to labor unrest and the closure of the Port of Portland, premium hay producers in Wallowa County finally are looking forward to higher prices.
“We’ve been offered $265 a ton for Timothy, and the buyer hauls it out of here,” said Kellie Schear, a Wallowa county hay farmer from Enterprise. “We’re getting good crops this year, too.”
According to the USDA Market Services, Eastern Oregon Alfalfa is going for around $160 per ton.
Most growers think it’s about time. Between November 2014 and May 2015, agricultural shipping was down by 40 percent, according to a study completed by Boshart Trucking near Tangent, in western Oregon and other hay shippers. As a result of that loss of shipping when the port closed, international buyers went elsewhere for their hay and that resulted in hay carryover for 2015.
“Those markets depend on reliability, and once we couldn’t ship in a timely manner, we lost a lot of our Timothy market,” said Wallowa County OSU Extension Agent John Williams. “Timothy is one of the big products we produce in Wallowa County. Closing the port of Portland actually started the tumbling of the hay market in the Pacific Northwest.”
The problem for hay growers was compounded because prices had been good before the shutdown, so more land had been put into hay. The resultant glut combined with loss of market made for a massive carryover.
That market has begun to come back, and although Williams warns that the market has not been fully tested, growers are optimistic.
“We’ve grown a lot of hay, there’s no question the volume is there,” Williams said. “Hay producers in Wallowa County always do a really good job of management of their hay fields, so there should be good quality hay in the first cutting.”
In addition to getting more product to the international market, hay producers rely on several other market factors to maintain prices.
One is the carryover that hay growers were left with in 2015. If that carryover were fed down during last year’s bad winter, which it appears to have been, the market is clear of that obstacle.
Another factor is the price of corn.
“There is a replacement opportunity with corn and other commodity grains,” Williams said. “If corn is down, those other markets are down and can drag hay prices down because cattle can be fed more corn and grain.”
Another factor is whether the hay farmer has “tied” part of his production to a local cattle operation.
“Hay is an international market tied to a national market tied to a regional market and tied to a local market,” Williams said. “I’ve been told for years, and I agree with it, that for a hay ranch to be successful, you have to have a cow herd behind it. It doesn’t have to be your herd, it can be your neighbor’s herd. That’s because there is always that hay that wasn’t put up the best, and it’s called cow hay for a reason. There are a 100 reasons you might not be successful at putting up premium hay –– in those years you survive on the cow herd attached to your hay.”
The Wallowa County Haygrowers Association has helped growers and ranchers network and create those partnerships.
“A prime example of how that works was one guy who got all of his hay rained on,, and he had quality hay customers he didn’t have the hay for,” Williams explained. “His neighbor cut and baled at a different time and got quality hay. Between the two ranchers they got quality hay for the customers and cow hay for both ranches.”
Last winter may have been challenging in many ways, but heavy snowfall at high altitude, lots of spring water and warm and dry weather thus far have made for an ideal early hay season.
“I think if we have problems with water its that we have a lot of it,” said Associated Ditch Company President Dan Butterfield of Joseph. “But, we’ve been managing, so I think we’re in good shape. We’ve had such good moisture that we’re having good crops.”
Hot weather for days at a time has also meant farmers are actually making hay while the sun shines.
“We haven’t had the untimely rainstorms,” said Williams. “Harvests happened pretty much at the right time.”
And the future water situation looks good, too.
“We’re full at Wallowa Lake. We’re seeing no problems for irrigation this year,” Butterfield said.
How much hay?
Wallowa County has 65,000 acres of crop land. Approximately 45,000 of that is irrigated and almost half of that is in hay. Around 13,904 acres is planted in alfalfa, 9,957 acres in grass, and another 5,106 acres in dry land grass for a total of 28,967 acres of hay in the county.