This year's hay crop is looking good
Last updated 6/27/2023 at 10:13am
If price is any indicator then the hay grown around Sisters is tops. Every week the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) puts out a market report for all commodities including hay. Last Friday's report confirmed what hay growers locally and equestrians throughout Oregon already know.
Premium+ grade alfalfa was fetching $350 a ton. That compares to $220-$285 in Minnesota, $250 in Montana, and $220-$235 in neighboring Washington. Only Texas came close at $340 and that's due to drought, not quality.
For grass hay, Oregon clocked in at $360, whereas Iowa was fetching $225-$260 and South Dakota ringing up $200-$225 a ton. More specifically, in Sisters Country, first-cutting premium alfalfa was garnering as much as $400. Alfalfa, as opposed to generic "hay" grasses, has about 16 to 20 percent protein, double hay, and two to three times as much calcium.
Alfalfa is actually a legume. Timothy, also grown in Sisters Country, is a grass. Legumes have more leafiness with less structure, producing more nutrients.
Farmers in Sisters Country just completed their first of what is typically two cuts of hay and they are smiling. The abundant water from a wetter spring and a cooler May and June have produced some mighty sweet-looking - and smelling - hay. Even laymen can see the greener, thicker appearance driving around Cloverdale.
Hay and orchard grasses is big business in Sisters Country. Depending on the year, between 3 and 4,000 acres are in production. At 5.5 tons per acre on average, nearby farmers put out about 38,000 tons a year with two cuttings. That translates to around $13.3 million when hay is at $350 per ton.
Most hay and alfalfa grown in Sisters Country is used by horses. Those huge hay trucks you see rolling though Sisters, eight to 10 a day, are from Eastern Oregon and going either to dairies in Tillamook County or overseas, mostly to China. Exports of Western state's hay and alfalfa was over 4 million tons last year.
Oregon alfalfa is valued at nearly $400 million and all other Oregon hays rang up another $250 million. That's a lot of hay. What makes our hay so good? Dirt for one thing. Soil in Sisters Country drains well and can be easily managed for an ideal pH (measure of acidity) of 6.5 to 7. Our cool weather and higher elevation are contributing factors.
Harsh winters are in fact good for growing hay. Cold weather kills off weeds and pests. Our long summer days filled with sun are perfect additives. Warm days give way to cool nights.
Much - not all - of the hay grasses grown in Sisters Country are certified weed free. That's important, for several reasons. One, the more weeds, the less nutrition. Two, horses can reject weed-laden hay. And three, a biggie, bringing hay into the Deschutes National Forest that is not certified weed free can get you a $5,000 fine.
All hay, hay cubes, straw, grain, and other crop or mulch products brought on to National Forest land in the Pacific Northwest region must be certified "weed free" using North American Weed Management Association (NAWMA) standards. Who wants weeds in the forest, right?
Invasive and noxious weeds can result in weed populations that degrade the health of native ecosystems. Wildlife habitat, soil and water quality, rangeland, economic values, and beauty of the land decline as a result. National Forest lands are among the area's most vulnerable to impacts from weeds and are also, in general, where prevention of infestation is most likely to succeed.
How do you know if what you're buying is weed free? The color of the bale twine will be an unmistakable purple and yellow.
Horses are athletes
Marissa Loving is a professional equerry - what used to be called a stable hand. She works at a large training and boarding facility near Eagle Crest.
"What we feed these horses and where we get it is super important," she said, explaining that the barns where she works only allow certified hay. "None of the horses I care for were bought for less than $50,000 and several are $100,000-plus. They're athletes, and no way my owners are going to skimp on hay."
The Cyrus family in Sisters has a total of 370 acres under hay, certified weed free. Matt Cyrus at Triple C Farms said: "It's a lot more than being certified. Very important to selling good hay is moisture content. We monitor ours closely to make sure it's between 8 and 14 percent."
Loving agrees. "Hay that is under 8 percent may be brittle, dry, and dusty. Hay that is over 18 percent has a high risk of developing mold, and hay over 25 percent can be a potential fire risk," she said.
Cyrus is happy - to a point - about favorable prices, but says growers remain under pressure from high fertilizer prices, still double from 2021, and fuel to run farm equipment is accelerating, again reaching about $2 per gallon more than two years ago.
Loving bemoaned the price of hay, saying that some pleasure horse owners have had to sell their horses due to being unable to afford the feed bills.