The Quiet Giant

The Quiet Giant header image
Hay and forage have more economic and environmental impact than many people realize.

Remember the old saying "make hay while the sun shines"? It is true.

Driving through central Oregon near Madras on a sunny and cold, windy fall day, I was surprised to see tractors chugging through large fields here and there along the highway, raking and baling hay.

"They’re in a hurry to finish up," my companion, a local, said. "A storm is coming in tomorrow."

At the time I thought it unusual to be harvesting a crop that late in the year. I’ve since discovered that hay growers do a lot of harvesting, usually getting four, and sometimes five, cuttings off their fields each year. That’s a lot of bales, but demand for hay has been steady.

While market prices for many Oregon crops, including wheat and other grains, have weakened over the past few years, hay and forage have held their own in the market place, according to Mylen Bohle, a field faculty member in the Crook County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service who works with forage crops.

That doesn’t surprise David Hannaway, an OSU forages specialist and Agricultural Experiment Station researcher. He has always considered Oregon’s hay and forage industry the sleeping giant of Oregon agriculture—a giant because the industry is a major component of Oregon agriculture; sleeping because it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

In Oregon, all hay and forage is composed of many varieties of grasses and legume-type plants. Grass species include perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue, orchardgrass and Timothy. The legume plant varieties are alfalfa, white clover, subterranean clover, red clover and birdsfoot trefoil.

Hay baling in a central Oregon alfalfa field.

Workers bale alfalfa in irrigated fields on the Jim Dinkel farm near Madras. Note the arid hills beyond. Photo: Bob Rost

Hay production includes alfalfa hay and grass hay, or grass-legume hay mixtures. There is also some grain hay harvested from barley and oat crops. Hay is cut, left to dry in the field, baled and stored for later use.

Forages may be grasses or legumes, or grass-legume mixtures consumed directly in the field by grazing livestock. Forages are grown on irrigated and non-irrigated pastures, non-irrigated hill lands and vast areas of Oregon rangeland.

Oregon’s forage production includes a small component of silage, which consists of grasses and legumes that are harvested and fermented in storage facilities to prevent spoilage. Silage is used as livestock feed when forage grasses aren’t growing productively.

The bulk of Oregon’s hay and forage is used in the Pacific Northwest and northern California. About 10–11 percent is exported, mostly to Japan and Korea.

Hay and forage has always been a vital crop in Oregon because, said Hannaway, it drives the livestock industry. Cattle, dairy cows, horses, sheep and goats all eat hay and forage. In addition, hay and forage production offers substantial environmental benefits.

According to Hannaway, a major reason why hay and forage lacks recognition as a leading crop relates to how it’s measured in terms of dollar value of sales.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s official statistics for 2001 report that Oregon producers harvested more than 1 million acres of hay valued at $280 million. However, Hannaway said these numbers give only part of the picture.

He estimates there are 400,000 acres of alfalfa, 650,000 acres of grass hay, 850,000 acres of irrigated pasture and more than 1 million acres of non-irrigated hill land pasture in the state.

Using these numbers, Hannaway figures the value of hay and forage production at over $500 million last year, making it the state’s number two crop—right behind nursery and greenhouse production, which had gross sales of $611 million in 2001.

"The official estimate of the value of hay and forage production is much lower because a large share of the hay and forage produced each year is used on the farm and doesn’t enter the marketplace," said Hannaway.

"Livestock producers grow hay and forage, but feed it directly to their livestock," he said. "Since a major part of annual hay and forage production in Oregon is not bought and sold like other crops, its real dollar value is never fully reported."

OSU crop scientist David Hannaway.

OSU crop scientist David Hannaway developed a Forage Information System. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The same can be said about the environmental advantages of growing hay and forage crops.

"The green benefits of forages are significant when compared to crops like wheat and other grains that are replanted annually," said Hannaway.

Most hay and forages are perennial crops, which means they remain in the field year-round and grow back every spring, he explained. The root systems of hay and forage plants are always present to anchor the soil, which helps prevent wind and water erosion.

"The root systems efficiently absorb fertilizers and other nutrients applied to hay and forage crops, and that helps prevent the leaching [movement through the soil to groundwater] of materials such as nitrogen," Bohle added.

"Also, the legume plants used in hay and forage crops add nitrogen to the soil, which reduces the need for application of nitrogen fertilizers to increase crop quality and yield," he said. "Hay and forage crops are often used as rotation crops because they help improve soil health."

Beyond what they do for the land, forages have a huge impact on the wildlife, according to Bohle.

"Forage growing in pastures throughout the state is a source of feed for all the elk, deer, antelope and other wild animals that are grazers and a source of cover for birds," he said. "In effect, growers who maintain pastures and hay fields are providing feed to all of these wildlife animals out there all year long."

Hannaway believes these contributions add up to an important story that Oregon’s hay and forage industry ought to be telling the public. However, the message hasn’t been getting out because little effort is being made to tell it, he said.

"Unlike some other producers’ groups such as the wheat or grass seed growers, the Oregon hay and forage industry doesn’t have a strong growers’ organization," said Hannaway. "That’s why it’s largely ignored. There’s little public awareness of the industry and it receives very little, if any, political support."

Bohle agrees.

Mylen Bohle checking alfalfa trials near Madras.

Mylen Bohle, an OSU Extension Service faculty member in Crook County, checks alfalfa trials at the Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center near Madras. Photo: Bob Rost

There’s no other crop even close to hay and forage in terms of the number of acres that are in forage and hay production, he said.

"It’s frustrating to see that many acres in an agricultural industry and yet the growers really don’t have an effective organization," said Bohle. "They have no voice politically or influence to do things for their own benefit."

For the record, the statewide Oregon Hay and Forage Producers Association was formed in 1998. There are several regional groups such as the Central Oregon Hay Growers’ Association, reestablished in 1995 after several years of dormancy, and the Klamath Hay Growers’ Association, formed in 1974. Harney and Lake counties also have active hay and forage growers’ associations. However, Hannaway and Bohle noted that none of these organizations has realized its potential—yet.

The absence of a strong voice is one of the industry’s biggest problems, according to Rod Todd, a field faculty member in the Klamath County office of the OSU Extension Service.

"I’d call it the quiet giant rather than the sleeping giant," said Todd. "The industry lacks a strong voice because the growers’ organization hasn’t found a way to generate sufficient funding to give it clout."

The problem, Todd explained, is that growers’ associations typically raise funds from members by collecting a fee per unit of product sold in retail markets. Most of the hay that is sold is marketed directly by the growers themselves. Because the hay is bought and sold in a wholesale market, state regulations prohibit the assessment of a sales fee by the growers’ association. Without this ability to generate funding, the Oregon Hay and Forage Association is left with little money to support marketing and research programs.

Growers’ preference for dealing directly with buyers is a reflection of their independence. Bret Hemenway is a good example. He grows and markets hay from his 600-acre farm near Madras and he also usually loads and drives the semi-truck and trailer to deliver hay to his customers.

"I like having control over what’s going on," he said. "Besides that, many of my customers, including dairy producers and horse owners, want to deal directly with the grower who is producing their hay. That way they can be confident they’re getting a quality product."

Although his farm keeps him extremely busy, Hemenway does find time to devote to building a growers’ association. He is a past president of both the Oregon Hay and Forage Association and the Central Oregon Hay Growers’ Association.

Brett Hemenway checking a bale of alfalfa with a moisture probe.

Madras grower Brett Hemenway checks a bale of alfalfa with a moisture probe. Baling hay with the right moisture content is important. Moisture affects the hay's protein content. Photo: Bob Rost

Trying to build the statewide association into a strong group has "been a battle," he said. "We’ve tried to get people fired up about the statewide association and it’s just been hard. There just aren’t many growers interested in membership in some regions of the state."

Hemenway added that some growers have joined together in strong local associations, but their interest hasn’t carried over to the statewide association.

Another hurdle in the way of a stronger growers’ organization may be the way hay production areas are scattered across the state.

"Oregon’s hay and forage industry is a collection of islands or pockets of hay and forage production and marketing," Bohle said.

The regions in Oregon with the most commercial hay production are central Oregon, the Klamath Basin, the Hermiston area, Malheur County and western Oregon.

Much of the Klamath Basin hay production goes to dairy producers in California. Hay production from central Oregon goes to California, Washington and to Oregon dairy producers on the coast. Hay production from Hermiston goes to dairy producers that are relocating to eastern Oregon and to Washington, and hay production from the Malheur County area goes to Idaho.

"With growers from the various regions headed in different directions, so to speak, it has been difficult for everyone to get on the same page and agree on common goals," Bohle said.

There are other problems as well.

For example, there is no leadership at the national level, no nationwide hay and forage organization that goes to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of the growers.

Also, and this is a key issue, many hay and forage growers produce livestock and other crops as well and they have more than one growers’ association competing for their time and support.

That’s Steve Kandra’s situation.

The Klamath Basin hay and grain grower is a past president of both the Klamath Hay Growers’ Association and the Oregon Hay and Forage Association. He’s enthusiastic about building a strong growers’ organization, but believes it will take time for growers to decide what kind of representation they really want.

"I think we’re kind of in our infancy of gathering folks together [in support of a strong growers’ organization]," said Kandra. "A lot of growers are like me. I’m not only an alfalfa grower, I’m also a wheat grower and a barley grower, and I contribute to associations supporting those things.

"Some growers question the need for another association," he added. "They want to know exactly what it will do for them. It takes time to figure out what the role of the association should be and then get growers involved with it."

If the hay and forage association does build some muscles to flex, Bohle said, a major priority begging for attention is research.

"The industry hasn’t really stepped up to the plate to find funds for research, and that’s a major issue because it’s hard to keep up with the fast pace of what’s happening in the field," he said. "We have more diseases coming in, more insects showing up that are potential problems, and new varieties coming down the line all the time."

For example, he continued, nematodes (microscopic worms that feed on plant roots) have started reducing alfalfa yields in some areas, and harvesting strategies for maximum yield is an important issue for quality of product.

"Market development is a glaring need, but some progress has been made," Bohle said. "The Oregon Hay and Forage Association has a weekly marketing and hay report now, and over the last two years has been putting out a state hay directory.

A bale loader picking up hay.

A bale loader. The next destination for this hay is a truck that will deliver it to the end user, perhaps a horse stable in Oregon or a Washington dairy. Photo: Bob Rost

"With the lack of resources available now, there are fewer and fewer people to work on these things, to keep up with the industry," Bohle added.

Hannaway’s approach to addressing the research and education needs of the industry, given that he is the only campus-based faculty member in OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences assigned to work on hay and forages full-time, is to rely on technology.

"Because of the resources that are available and those that are not, the direction I’ve taken over the last 10 years is toward computer-based tools," he said. "We’ve worked toward providing growers with Web-based information, globally assembled and globally delivered, related to forage production."

A project designed to help with this outreach is the Northwest Forage and Livestock Systems Research, Education and Extension Center.

Proposed by Hannaway and others, the center will share resources among federal and state agencies and land-grant universities in the Pacific Northwest and bring together researchers from crop and livestock science to focus on forage and livestock production as a whole system.

The center has not yet been established because funding has not been available.

In summing up, Todd emphasized that although hay and forage growers’ organizations may not be as strong and effective as they could be, the industry has made steady progress over the past 25 years.

OSU Extension Service educators and Agricultural Experiment Station researchers have worked with growers on a number of projects that have moved the industry forward, he said.

For example, researchers have developed new hay and forage varieties that are more disease-resistant and better suited to the particular climates of Oregon’s hay producing regions. In addition, OSU has worked with the industry over the past several years to establish standards of product quality for hay and forage. These standards are based on chemical analysis of nutrient and digestible fiber content in hay.

Extension educators have also worked with the industry to develop export markets among Pacific Rim countries.

"The 10 percent of Oregon hay production that is currently being shipped overseas is part of the highest quality hay grown in the state," Todd said. "The level of quality required by the export market has set a high quality standard for the entire industry."

Rodney Todd sitting next to hay bales.

Close cooperation could help both the hay and forage and the livestock industries, notes the OSU Extension Service's Rodney Todd, who works with Klamath County hay growers. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Looking ahead, Todd said more cooperation between the hay and forage and livestock industries would be of great benefit to both.

"All hay and forage is produced for livestock," said Todd. "Each industry has

a huge stake in the success of the other. Working together would give everyone involved more opportunities to fund research projects and develop markets for their products."

Published in: Economics