Northwest hay growers doubt acreage report’s accuracy

Published: July 8, 2014 11:46AM

Last changed: July 8, 2014 12:44PM

AR-140709884.jpg&MaxW=600Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press
Swathing takes a break in this alfalfa field in Jerome Idaho, on Tuesday morning, July 8. Idaho is down 10,000 in hay acres harvested this year, a surprise to some in the industry.

Harvested hay acres dropped slightly this year in the U.S., but some big increases in Washington and Oregon have growers there surprised and doubtful of USDA’s reported numbers.

While U.S. hay acreage has dropped slightly compared to a year ago, increased acreage reported in individual states last week by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service comes as a big surprise to growers.

Nationwide harvested acreage of all hay at 57.6 million acres is down 611,000 acres from

58.3 million acres in 2013. But acreage is up 160,000 in Washington and 30,000 in Oregon, according to the report.

Those increases seem unrealistice, according to growers in Washington and Oregon who represent their state hay associations.

At 920,000 acres, Washington alfalfa acres are up 60,000 acres, and other hay is up 100,000 acres, USDA reported.

“Flaws in the numbers — that’s my first thought,” said Loren Lentz, president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association, who farms north of Spokane.

“I’m going to guess there’s something wrong. I can’t think where it would have gone in,” he said.

More acres did go into Timothy hay due to demand and price, but fall planting of hay acres in the Columbia basin were more likely to have been down because prices were down through fall, he said.

California buyers did come in through winter and spring and cleared out a lot of Washington’s excess of lower quality Timothy and alfalfa and raised prices, so producers could have planted more in the spring. But that crop won’t produce until next year, and it could even take two years to establish well enough to harvest, he said.

He hasn’t seen any big swings in hay acreage in his northeast area.

Lentz said Washington’s first cutting was some of the best hay in quite a while and prices are good. Washington won’t be competing with California this year on export hay due to California’s short water situation, so things are looking good on that front, he said.

At 1.05 million acres in total, Oregon is down 10,000 acres in alfalfa but up 40,000 acres in other hay, USDA reported.

“That’s a big number. It’s a tough one to believe,” said Greg Mohnen, a Bend, Ore., hay grower and vice president of the Oregon Hay and Forage Association.

He’s heard that growers were increasing acreage because of high hay prices, but he doesn’t know where it would have gone in or what producers would have taken out of production to make room for more hay, he said.

If the acreage numbers are correct, that excess hay will be going to California, he said.

California’s total acreage, at 1.4 million acres, is down 70,000 acres. Alfalfa acres are up 30,000, and other hay is down 100,000 acres, USDA reported.

It’s certainly no surprise that acreage is down, said Spencer Halsey, executive director of California Alfalfa and Forage Association.

He doesn’t know if the association’s members agree with the numbers, but the short water supply is being diverted to more permanent crops or highest value crops, he said.

It’s an interesting situation for hay growers in California because hay prices are high. Water is tight, but if they have the water, they can make more money on hay than some other crops, he said.

Idaho’s hay acreage, at 1.5 million, is down 10,000 acres — 40,000 less in alfalfa and up 30,000 in other hay.

Some of that loss could be in lost seeds and stands in small basins due to drought challenges, but those losses shouldn’t be enough to bring acreage down as much as USDA reported, said Glenn Shewmaker, extension forage specialist with the University of Idaho in Twin Falls.

Due to high prices and lower input costs, alfalfa would bring better returns than most other crops. He doesn’t understand the drop in acreage in Idaho or nationwide, he said.

He would have thought more corn acres would have been converted to alfalfa. Inputs for alfalfa are lower than corn and with current prices, growers could net a couple of hundred dollars more per acre than many other crops, he said, adding USDA’s numbers are suspect.

Hay area harvested

Area all hay 2013 all hay 2014

1,000 acres

Calif. 1,440 1,370

Idaho 1,480 1,470

Ore. 1,020 1050

Wash. 760 920

U.S. 58,257 57,646