Alfalfa growers in the Columbia Basin say a warm spring has caused the crop to mature early, causing stems to grow at the expense of leaves.
Ben Schaapman said he had to start cutting the alfalfa he grows just south of Quincy on May 2, two weeks earlier than normal, and probably should have begun on April 25.
"The hay was ready. I wasn't. It's hard to get excited in a down market," Schaapman told the Capital Press on his second day of baling.
Alfalfa prices are down and stocks are up because of low milk prices, which means dairies are buying less hay. Supreme alfalfa was at $185 per ton on May 8, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while Pacific Northwest hay stocks were up 16 percent from a year ago on May 1.
Mike Cobb, a grower from Ephrata, Washington, said the early alfalfa maturity means the crop has more tonnage than quality.
"It grows so fast it doesn't test very well for nutrients. We'll have a hard time getting test on it for dairies, but it should be good for export," Cobb said.
Exporting the alfalfa, however, comes with challenges of its own. Overseas markets were lost when labor troubles slowed down West Coast container ports for months.
"Every company is in a different position. Generally, it's still a soft market for exports," said Mark T. Anderson, president and CEO of Anderson Hay & Grain Co. in Ellensburg, Washington. "There's a lot of push to get rid of old crop and make room for new crop. It's been a tough winter and spring."
Anderson is one of the largest West Coast exporters, with additional offices in Oregon, California and China. He said it's too early to determine whether the early first-cutting of the Columbian Basin alfalfa will affect yield, quality or price.