It is that time of the year when Wallowa County hay producers have to decide exactly when to cut their first growth of hay. Some have already done so while others are cautiously watching the maturity of their crop and the weather.
"If they cut it they are gambling they can get it up before it is rained on," says Wallowa County Extension agent John Williams.
The rule of thumb used to be to cut directly after the 4th of July, but new genetically improved varieties and fertilizers are often pushing up the harvest clock. Warm weather is also a key component.
Alfalfa hay is traditionally the first crop to be harvested. Williams says the ideal time to harvest alfalfa is the day before the first flower is seen on the plant. Protein content is a key to a successful harvest, and alfalfa hay raised locally can reach 21 to 22 percent protein content. This is often called "dairy quality" alfalfa hay.
Grass hay can reach 16 to 18 percent protein content.
Williams estimates that there is 25,000 acres of hay harvested in Wallowa County each year. Of that total 5,000 acres is alfalfa hay, 10,000 acres is alfalfa/grass mix hay and 10,000 acres is grass hay.
The leaves are the highest protein portion of the alfalfa plant and the blades the highest protein segment of the grass plant.
"We can grow very high quality hay in Wallowa County," says the extension agent.
He says that, once cut, the energy and protein content of the plant is locked in. However hay that is rained on after it is cut is susceptible to losing vitamin A and can lose the color demanded of competitive high priced hay.
Williams says that the ideal scenario for a hay harvest is to cut the crop when it reaches maturity, wait at least one day to let the upper half dry, rake the second day and bale the hay the third day. Cooler evenings and higher humidity are now pushing back the baling time to the fourth or fifth day.
Another variable the farmer has to consider is the proper time to rake the hay. If it is raked before the top half dries there is a danger it will not dry enough. If alfalfa hay is raked too dry there is a danger that the protein bearing leaves will fall off.
Elongated rain once the hay is down will produce mold and definitely decrease the value of the crop.
"Most everybody in the county who raises livestock raises hay," says Williams. He goes on to say that farmers who raise hay for their stock are not normally as particular as growers who plan to ship their hay outside of the county. Slightly discolored hay may hold the same protein content for the livestock, but will not sell for as a high a price on the open market.
The art of haying has changed significantly over the past 20 to 30 years. Whereas farmers routinely hired numerous teens at minimum wage jobs to bring in the harvest before, now the harvest is almost totally automated. Haying crews are basically a thing of the past.
Most hay growers go for two and even three crops in one summer. The latter crops are normally more weed-free and may qualify some Wallowa County growers for certificated, weed-free value added crops this summer. This is being done through the Wallowa County vegetation department which, with the blessing of the Wallowa County board of commissioners, is implementing the first such program in Oregon.