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Custom Hay Harvest Rates

We all have noticed hay prices climbing in the last few years.  in 2007, hay was moving at around $150/ton, and consumers thought $180 was a steep price to pay for premium orchard grass.  Now fast forward to the fall of 2012, anything remotely green is commanding over $200 a ton, and premium orchard or timothy prices are reaching $270 per ton or more in the barn!

With these hay prices climbing, one interesting thing I have noticed is that custom rates have not budged.  The standard rate in Central Oregon has been roughly $80-$100/acre for the last 5 years, and it looks to stay steady for 2013.  This phenomena was stated in an article I remember reading online last year.  It was an article advocating large hay operations to consider hiring custom haying done versus tying up large amounts of capital in equipment.  I can’t seem to find it now, but one of the points was that custom rates have been raising slower than the cost of fuel and equipment, making hiring a custom operator look more and more attractive.  The way custom operators stay in business is by becoming more and more efficient.

For 2013, I plan to keep my standard rates for custom haying the same as 2012 at $80-$100/acre depending on the size of fields and smoothness. I have been eating the rising diesel costs, hedging myself as much as I can by getting it delivered on the price dips, I am waiting for the price to fall a bit and I will stock up so I have my fuel cost fixed.  That is  one cost I can control!


Small Bale Alfalfa Hay Scarce

Alfalfa acreage has been declining in Central Oregon for a few years (this year it could turn around) which has tightened alfalfa stocks overall locally. Add strong prices for dairy hay packaged in 3×4 bales, and the result is a much lower local supply of small bale alfalfa.  Besides Culver, Prineville and Madras, the only area with any sizable alfalfa fields left are located in Sisters.  The community of Alfalfa located east of Bend has seen huge reduction of acreage.  Many fields are dry now, and few fields remain.  Take a drive out sometime and you can see firsthand the lack of alfalfa fields,  some have been dried up, others are now replaced with orchard grass or pastures.  Most of the remaining acreage is packaged in large bales to be trucked to dairies outside the area.

In Sisters, there are still some acreage left in alfalfa, and most of the crop is still sold locally, or at least packaged in small bales. I wish there was a source of data that tracks hay acreage accurately locally, I have scouted locally and seen firsthand the reduction of acreage, and talked to farmers about their clients, but data would be interesting to look at.

Alfalfa needs fairly neutral soil to yield well, and unfortunately adding lime into a fertility program adds substantial cost that is difficult to make up. Even with the added lime cost, it still is cheaper to fertilize than grass, but some fields are just too acidic to justify bringing to acceptable range for alfalfa.

With the reduction of alfalfa supplies, I have seen a shift of pricing.  Traditionally, orchard grass with the additional nitrogen cost has commanded  $20-$30/ton more than alfalfa, but in the last two years it’s flipped around.  Keep in mind that the flipping of the prices has been mostly locally here, there are still cheaper alfalfa elsewhere but locally there has been a trend of increasing alfalfa prices higher than grass.




When purchasing hay, so many people forget that they are buying from farmers who happen to be human beings!  recognizing this simple  fact and understanding some details about growing hay can help you find (or negotiate) better deals on your hay.

The first and easiest way to get a deal on hay is to offer to pick it out of the field. It take a few more minutes, but usually you can negotiate as much as $20/ton off the price of hay simply because it removes the stacking labor and time for the farmer.  Now for me, if I get a call for 1 ton and they offer to pick it out of the field, they better show up right on time or I am not going to risk rain or waiting a day to get the irrigation back on, so BE ON TIME!

Another great way to find bargains is to talk to the small field owners, (1o acres or less).  Most of the time these growers have limited storage and try to sell it out of the field, so they usually are eager to move their hay and if you take a few ton, they will usually give you a discount.

Ask about last year’s hay.  Buying hay from the year before is unpopular, but very little if any nutrient value is lost and if the farmer needs the room for the new crop, showing up with a trailer can get you a good deal on hay real fast.  Tests have shown that the amount of nutrients lost by storage is minimal. See:

Use these tips to get a break on these high hay prices!

Dew, Your Best Friend

Central Oregon is blessed to have cool evenings and nights that produce prime baling weather.  As the cool air settles down, condensation forms on the windows and help make a perfectly firm bale.  However, it does take some planning ahead to have the moisture just right for the hay to not be too moist and cause mold problems in the stack.

I like to dry the hay out to 8% and then wait for the moisture to build to 11% or so before I start baling.  This usually means I start baling at around 9 PM during first cutting and 7:30-8:00 during second cutting.  If the hay is good and dry before the dew comes, the moisture is not in the stem and will dissipate through the bale and not cause any molding so the key is to get that windrow dry clear through before the dew hits.  The dew helps the hay pack better and softens the hay to create more solid, heavier bales while lowering the dust contained in the bale.

I was baling alfalfa in Boardman, Or last year and we would start at 2 AM and barely got any dew because of the warm wind that constantly blows through the Columbia Basin.  Tumalo, where I put up most of my hay, is at 3600 ft and we get lots of dew so we start earlier than most areas, the time that works best for you will be dependant on your location (in a valley, versus a hill), wind, and elevation.

If the hay is good and dry before the dew, I bale up to about 17% moisture before I quit for the night.  I am pretty conservative, some guys go higher, but I don’t think its worth the mold potential.  Once you can see moisture on your tires, start checking your meter frequently as the dew can set fast.


Hay Prices Remain Strong

As the 2012 hay season is starting to wind down, we get a clearer picture of hay what hay prices will be this fall and winter. 

Central Oregon hay has remained in high demand, both from local markets and export buyers and prices have stayed at levels seen last year.  The bulk of 1st and 2nd cutting orchard grass is being marketed at $220 to $240/ton, with prices for alfalfa close behind. However, there are still bargins out there and some hay can be found in the $190/ton range, but those guys will soon be bought out.

These prices are staying high even as milk prices are not where the dairymen would like to see them.  I sure would not want to be milking cows with these prices. Margins are still pretty tight which is crimping the purchasing power of the dairies.  Just think what would happen to alfalfa prices if they get some better milk checks! 

Orchard grass is always tied to alfalfa prices, and should command a premium over alfalfa prices to cover the higher fertilizer prices. Last year we saw the premium evaporate as alfalfa became scarce, and it’s hard for growers to stick with orchard grass when they see similar money for the cheaper-to-grow alfalfa.

Lets see what 3rd and 4th cutting weather gives us.

2012 Hay Prices

The first cutting of 2012 has been baled in some of the warmer places of Oregon including Boardman, Ontario, as well as on the California border.  Dodging rain in May, the weather cleared up the first week of June and horse and dairy quality hay has hit the market.

While talking to producers and consumers alike, there seemed to be a bearish tone heading into the first cutting, but so far prices have’nt dropped much from the winter prices. The Capital Press has a few ads for Alfalfa and Orchard Grass above $210 a ton.  Craigslists of different areas also have many ads over $200/ton, with few farmers undercutting the price even with old stocks.   Granted many areas have yet to cut so there is quite a bit of hay to put up for 1st cutting, so there is still plenty of time for a drop.

Here is an interesting article from Hay and Forage Grower concerning hay prices.

This spring has seen new acres being planted back into hay after last year’s high grain prices.  Along with the new seeding alfalfa or orchard grass, a cover crop of an annual forage is usually planted.  I have planted 3 different oat varieties, and will have some beardless barley planted as well by the end of the week.  Each variety have a specific purpose and have different factors to consider before you plant.

The three varieties of oats I have planted are:

  • Texas Red
  • Everleaf
  • Cayuse

Texas Red

I was inspired to plant this variety after walking up to a stack and barely recognizing the hay as being oat hay because of how fine the stems were.   I will be putting it up in small bales and marketing it to the horse market, where thicker stemmed oats are often wasted by pickier eaters.  I planted roughly 120 lbs/acre and got some frost damage when I had two consecutive mornings of 20 degree lows.  The oats were coming up irregularly because of dry conditions and the youngest seedlings got frosted out and I reseeded.  I am expecting 3.5-4 tons/acre yield based on research online but the lower yield should be offset by higher sale prices as the palatably will surely be a hit with the horse owners.


This is my favorite variety so far, I had great success in a small field last year (5 tons/acre).  This variety is more frost-hardy than Texas Red and produces huge tonnage especially if grown under pivots where they can be irrigated as long as possible.  I had to shut off water early because my wheel line got stuck in the field after a last pass with large nozzles to put out as much water as possible.  Although this variety produces huge tonnage, one downside is that the stems are quite thick, which reduces palatability.  Cattle love it, but if you want to market to the horse industry, the thick stems are undesirable.  I have some Everleaf which is pivot irrigated and I am excited to see the yield on that field.


Cayuse oats is a multi-purpose oat that I grew before I found Everleaf.  I usually get around 4-4.5 tons/acre, and the oats have thinner stems that Everleaf, but still are somewhat thick for the horses.  This variety is extremely popular, and I planted this because my seed supplier ran out of Everleaf.  Last year I had a field that I had mixed Everleaf and Cayuse in the drill seeder and I could distinctly see the Cayuse, as it matured a week earlier than the Everleaf, and was ready to harvest while the Everleaf was still growing.  I would recommend Cayuse for ground with wheel lines and as a cover as the harvest date would be earlier and irrigating is easier as the crop matures.


Other Considerations

I often plant straight oats, versus as a cover crop in order to maximize yield and clean up weedy ground.  When planting as a cover crop, reduce seeding rate in order to not choke out the grass or alfalfa underneath. Remember that the main focus should be the new crop, versus the cover as a healthy new stand is the purpose, versus maximizing the cover crop yield.  Because of the dense canopy and high yield, I would be hesitant to plant Everleaf as a cover crop, but rather stick to Cayuse or even Texas Red in order to ensure that the new seeding will not be choked out.

Spring Irrigation

April brought some warm days here to Central Oregon, and warm days also means the start of irrigation season.  As I wrap up spring planting, my focus turns to managing irrigation, and considering we have had 3 inches of rain since Feburary, water is very important.


Our water is available April 15th, although most of our neighbors don’t turn on until early May.  We irrigate mostly with wheel lines, and it took us a few days to get everything ready for the season (gaskets, checking drains, flushing lines, etc).  We got most everything on by the 25th, and most of our fields are wet.

Because of a maintainence issue, our irrigation district will be shutting off water from the 6th until the 11th, so we are pushing to get our pre-emergant herbicide watered down on our garbanzo beans.  This means 8 hour sets and a whole lot of labor.   However, we will be ahead of the water, and set up to take advantage of the warmer days in the forcast.

Last spring was a real wet one, and we were shut off most of May, which saved a whole lot of power costs, but delayed 1st cutting hay by 10 days.  It does not look like this spring will be too wet, and if we can get some heat the hay will look real good.

Many farms and land owners make  the decision to dry up ground for multiple reasons.  Perhaps prices were down, or the farmer wanted to concentrate on better ground, there are many reasons to dry up ground temporarily but when it is time to get the ground back into production there are some issues to address to ensure a strong, healthy hay stand.

I am doing some custom field work putting dry acres back into production this spring.   I will do the tillage and plant oat hay as a cover crop and then Alfalfa in the fall.  The field has wheel lines and has been dry for over three years.  Currently it looks like an ugly mess of dry mustard, tumble weeds, as well as some hardy grass that managed to eke enough water out of the dry sand to survive.  Here is a list of my top concerns as I approach putting this field back into production:

  • I know that as soon as the soil is irrigated, all the weed seed will sprout.  The oats will grow vigorously in the cool spring and should choke out most of the weeds.  Any skips or areas where the seed sprouts poorly, the weeds will overtake and be a problem.
  • One benefit of the dry sandy soil is that there is no compaction out in the field, but I will have to make sure I do my tillage work without adding any compaction.
  • The soil tested very poor, there is hardly any residual nitrogen or other nutrients. I am going to gamble and not put down much P or K in order to save some fertilizer costs.  However I will put down quite a bit of N for the oats and then I will put down P, K, and some sulfur in the fall for the new seeding Alfalfa.
  • Although in my case I will not be irrigating, one thing to think about is the irrigation system.  If the mainline and pipes have been sitting for multiple years, you might as well count on replacing all the gaskets and some sprinklers. it often takes a week or so to iron out all the kinks.
  • The borders and fence lines of this field is covered in weeds, so I will burn as much as I can safely and disk areas that are too dry to burn safely.  Those weeds could potentially ruin the Alfalfa next year, so controlling them this year will be a high priority.

Right now is a prime time to get that dry field back into production with prices the way they are. Get on the ball early and get control of those pesky weeds and you will have a clean, green field in no time!

Oat Hay Test Plot

I have been doing some reasearch on oat hay and I have been interested in finding which variety that will produce a high-yield crop without sacrificing too much palatability  In 2011 I had a small field with two varieties, Everleaf and Charisma, and the Everleaf variety was almost 6 inches taller than the Charisma variety and about 10 days less mature. 

Everleaf had a thick stalk with lots of leaf, and I think it is a good variety for cattlemen chasing high yields and can sacrifice some palatability.  However because of the thick stalk, some horses might pick through it and waste too much.  The Charisma was a pretty good utility variety, as it was more palatable, but with reduced yield. 

Because of how tall the Everleaf grew, I had to shut off the wheel line earlier than I wanted which speeded up the maturity process.  If it was under pivot, I would have hit it with another 2 inches of water and I think I could have gotten another half ton/acre.  

I went to Corvallis Feed & Seed company, a seed company that moves quite a bit of oat seed and asked for 6 samples of varieties and I planted a test plot.  The varieties I planted were:

  • Grey
  • Swan
  • Texas Red
  • Charisma
  • Montazuma
  • Everleaf
  • I also planted some triticale

We will see what the different varieties produce this summer. In the meantime, I think I will be planting some Texas Red and Everleaf this spring for the horse and dairy market.

If you have any thoughts on varieties, feel free to comment below. I would expecially like to hear from consumers.