Higher prices for high-end hay
By ED MERRIMAN
Baker City Herald
Bill Bailey is known for his knowledge of hay, which led him to plant a much sought after variety of orchardgrass hay that's bringing $250 a ton, up from $165 two years ago.
"I have thoroughbred owners who won't use anything but second-crop orchardgrass hay," said Bailey, whose farm is in Baker Valley.
Bailey also grows some alfalfa hay, which is known as king of the hay crops grown on a grand scale. But even with the price of dairy quality alfalfa at a historically high price of $180 to $200 a ton this year as a result of last year's drought and hay shortage, Bailey said he's getting more for the orchardgrass hay he grows for owners of high-end horses and goats.
"Most people in Baker County grow cow feed. I like to stay in the minority," Bailey said.
Bailey also grows a combination of native forage legume with yellow flowers, which he said was the predominant forage feed for cows prior to the widespread cultivation of alfalfa hay.
Some of his customers, including owners of thoroughbred race horses and angora goats, prefer a hay blend Bailey produces by planting a mixture of alfalfa and orchardgrass, or alfalfa, orchardgrass and the native forage, which provide a hay richer in minerals.
While orchardgrass hay and his hay blends traditionally fetch a somewhat higher price than standard alfalfa hay crops, Bailey said a shortage of the specific variety of orchardgrass hay seed he imports from the Netherlands led to a larger price spread this year.
"The supply or orchardgrass seed dried up, for the Latar variety that is shipped in from the Netherlands," Bailey said.
"Over the past year the price went from $1.20 to $4 a pound, Bailey said. "I was just shocked."
Over the years, he said, prices of orchardgrass seed swung from $1 to $2 a pound, depending on supply and demand but he's never seen the price go from $1.20 a
pound to $4 a pound in one year.
He said orchardgrass hay is a little easier to grow and harvest than timothy grass hay, but it's a bit tricky to get it just right, with the softer stalks preferred by owners of high-end horses and goats, who are very particular.
However, if he can't get the Latar variety of orchardgrass seed out of The Netherlands when it's time to replant, Bailey said he may have to replace some of his orchardgrass with Timothy hay,.
"Timothy is a very good grass, but there's some problems harvesting it," Bailey said. "Timothy isn't very drought resistant, whereas orchardgrass is pretty hardy. Even if it dies back in a drought, it comes back."
Bailey said two years of drought in Baker County and across much of the western United States has driven up all hay prices, including the price of Timothy grass and other traditional grass hay varieties.
While orchardgrass brings a premium price and domestic demand generally exceeds supply, Bailey said timothy hay is in great demand in Japan and Korea as a forage hay for pampered, high-priced Wagyu cattle.
He said consumers in Asian countries haven't acquired the taste for fat marbled beef like Americans, so they prefer the leaner beef produced by grass-fed cattle, as opposed to cattle fed alfalfa hay and feed corn.
Timothy hay sold on the export market starts at $250 a ton, Bailey said. Most of the timothy hay exported to the Pacific Rim is shipped out of the Yakima Valley, Bailey said.
"It's harder to harvest, has shorter, lighter stalks, and it cakes when you swath it," Bailey said of timothy hay.
"It's definitely more trouble to grow, but there's money in it," Bailey said.
When it comes to growing grass or alfalfa hay, Bailey knows just what fertilizer or other crop amendment is needed at what time to give his hay to color and quality customers prefer.
Although, with fertilizer costs for growing alfalfa hay at $80 per acre, up from $30 per acre last year, Bailey said he's careful not to use any more than is necessary to produce a high-quality crop.
"I just sell to the local market around here," Bailey said.
Bailey also does custom haying.
"I buy grass standing in the field, cut it, bale it and sell it," Bailey said. "I still use small bales, which are getting harder to find."
Bailey said his high-end horse and goat customers prefer the small bales because they're easier to use for people who don't have large bale handling equipment.
During his many years of growing hay, Bailey said he started farming part time in 1974 and has been farming full time since retiring from the food distribution business in 1997.
He was drawn to farming by his love of growing things, the pleasure of working outdoors and the friendly people involved in agriculture.
Over they years, he's had to deal with enough equipment breakdowns to become a pretty fair mechanic.
Last week when swathing his orchardgrass hay crop, Bailey's swather broke down in the morning, and by early afternoon he had removed the broken part, had it repaired by a machine shop and was in the process of installing the repaired part.
"When something breaks down, you have to figure out what it was and how you are going to fix it," he said.
By the end of the day his swather was fixed and he was back cutting hay, hoping the sun keeps shining and it doesn't rain until his hay crops are cut, baled and stacked