Bad timing for rain during hay harvest

By Cheryl Schweizer,

Herald staff writer 1 hour ago

MOSES LAKE – It looked like 2013 would bring a pretty good hay harvest, not the best ever, but pretty good. Then it started raining.

June rains did a lot of damage to both alfalfa and timothy hay, according to industry experts. “Disaster,” said Don Schilling of Wesco International, a major hay exporter based in Ellensburg. “The rains were about as untimely as they could’ve been,” he said.

“It’s been a very tough harvest,” said Mark Anderson of Anderson Hay and Grain. “This is going to go down as one of the most difficult hay harvests in anybody’s memory,” Schilling said.

For people without much knowledge of hay and the hay market, local growers raise two distinctive types of hay, according to Schilling. Timothy hay is a grass, alfalfa is more of a flowering plant. A grower will get two crops of timothy hay per growing season, and three or four crops of alfalfa.

But whatever kind it is, rain is bad for hay when it falls at the wrong time. Hay that’s already cut but not packed into bales gets wet, which means it can start sprouting new growth or – even worse – get moldy, Anderson said. Hay that’s still growing can’t be cut when it’s wet, so the best time for harvesting it can roll right by while the hay is drying out.

Like any other commodity, harvesting at the right time is crucial, and hay that got wet or has been in the field too long doesn’t get the premium price, according to Schilling and Anderson.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks hay prices; the last weekly report, June 28, had the highest-quality timothy hay bringing an average of $272.50 per ton, and highest-quality alfalfa bringing an average of $227.50 per ton. But the price for alfalfa with rain damage was $163 per ton.

First cutting of any kind of hay is the most desirable, Schilling said. There is a market for all hay unless it’s gone moldy, “but the question is, what’s the price?” Schilling said.

About 30 to 40 percent of Columbia Basin hay is sold on the export market, Schilling said. Major customers are Japan, South Korea, China and countries in the Middle East.

Anderson said it’s still to early to tell exactly what it will all mean for the export market. “We just don’t know how that’s going to play out.”

Anderson said exporters were facing some challenges before the rains scrambled the market further. Japan is the biggest customer for premium hay, and the Japanese economy is slowing down. In addition, there was carryover from the 2012 crop, and some of it is still on the market, he said.