Abooming overseas market for alfalfa is a key driver not only for baler manufacturers but also hay exporters. Exports of U.S. hay grew to more than 3.7 million tons in 2012, up sharply from 2.5 million in 2008. Those levels are expected to continue to grow.
China, the United Arab Emirates and Japan have emerged as major markets for U.S. hay, with Vietnam also an up-and-coming buyer, says John E. Gombos, business unit manager for ACX Pacific Northwest, a major alfalfa and grass hay compressor-shipper. In 2012, ACX Pacific Northwest exported 52,400 TEUs (20' Equivalent Units). That represents almost 700,000 tons of long fiber forage.
Compact bales. Based in Bakersfield, Calif., ACX Pacific Northwest purchases alfalfa hay, timothy hay, sudangrass, oat hay and other grass hay and straw products from farmers in several Western states. It then compresses, packages and exports these products for foreign-based dairy and beef animals, as well as camels, sheep and goats.
From its 15-acre facility at the Port of Stockton, ACX readies the bales of alfalfa and other feedstocks for their journey to the Port of Oakland, where they’re loaded aboard ships. Ocean freight is competitive because ships arriving in the U.S. with Chinese-made goods need to return to Asia carrying new products.
Costs for truck containers from inland sites to Oakland, Calif., are a different matter, though.
"Trucking costs are up 10% to 15% because of clean air compliance requirements," Gombos says.
That makes bale size and weight critical for the 83-mile trucking haul to Oakland. ACX, the only hay presser at the Port of Stockton, uses two presses to reduce bales by about 50% in size and weight. Typically, alfalfa bales arrive weighing 1,200 lb. to 1,300 lb. and measuring 3'x4'x8'. ACX shrinks the bale’s dimension by almost half and its weight to about 1,000 lb. The company can run 60 alfalfa bales per hour through its newer press.
While ACX facilities in Ellensburg, Wash., and Wilmington, Calif., can load containers with up to 26 metric tons of hay for most markets, the ACX Stockton facility can only load up to 22.5 metric tons due to road-weight restrictions in Northern California. The Stockton facility sends out 20 to 30 fully loaded containers a day to the Port of Oakland. It takes 50 days for a ship to travel from the Port of Oakland to the Middle East.
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