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Hay surpasses potatoes as Idaho’s top crop. Here’s why

Jerry Neufeld on hay farming

Jerry Neufeld, crops extension educator at University of Idaho's Caldwell office, explains how water forecasts can make growing alfalfa risky for farmers.
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Jerry Neufeld, crops extension educator at University of Idaho's Caldwell office, explains how water forecasts can make growing alfalfa risky for farmers.

The green fields springing out of the arid Bruneau Valley wouldn’t grow without irrigation. The area receives just 7 inches of precipitation a year, about half of Boise’s.

But hay is best made when the sun shines. Rain is hay’s enemy. Bone-dry conditions are ideal for Billy and Jim Wolfe, who grow hay on 5,200 acres across southern Idaho, including 1,700 for J.R. Simplot Co.’s massive Grand View feed lot.

“We grow it. We buy it. We move it. We stack it,” says Billy Wolfe, 56. “We are a one-stop shop.”

Idaho may be famous for its potatoes, still ranked the state’s top crop with $871 million in sales in 2015, the University of Idaho estimates. But hay has quietly grown into a big-time cash crop, bringing in an estimated $485 million in sales in 2015, trailing only potatoes and wheat.

And that number understates hay’s role in Idaho agriculture, says Garth Taylor, an agricultural economist at University of Idaho. Thanks to Idaho’s growing beef and dairy industries — which brought in an estimated 58 percent of Idaho ag sales last year — much of Idaho’s hay never reaches market.

About 45 percent of hay in the state is fed to animals on the same farms that produced it, without being sold. Including that brings Idaho hay’s total value in 2015 to $881 million, a smidge more than potato sales.

That makes hay Idaho’s top crop, Taylor says.

“In the early 2000s, we, shifted from a crop-based state to livestock-based state,” Taylor says. “That production is not chickens. It’s beef, and that’s built on hay.”

As Simplot grew, we grew with them. When Simplot bought another farm, we’d buy another piece of equipment. We’d save a little money and buy a bankrupt farm.

Hay farmer and broker Billy Wolfe

Hay farmers enjoyed banner years from 2011 to 2014 when soaring demand from dairies and low supply resulted in prices surpassing $200 per ton for dry hay, the kind most sought by dairies. Hay with higher water content can get moldy.

However, demand softened after hay flooded the international market in recent years. Rainfall in weeks leading up to cuttings this year and last meant the hay was too moist to fetch top prices. Moisture can cause mold and other problems. Idaho Billy Wolfe says the brothers hope to fetch $130 per ton for the rest of this year.

$168 Average price per ton of Idaho hay in 2015

$201 Average price in 2014

Rain in each of the past two Aprils, before the first cuttings — which account for about two-thirds of Wolfe Bros.’ hay sales — meant a price drop from $130 per ton to $80. That bumped much of the Wolfe’s hay below the break-even point for first cuttings in 2015 and 2016.

“We control the agronomy,” Billy Wolfe says. “We control the bugs. The risks are all weather-related.”

Hay prices stink this year.

University of Idaho farm economist Garth Taylor

As an export, Idaho hay peaked in 2009, bringing in $25 million in sales, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Foreign demand has fallen because of declining economies and embargos, Taylor says.

“Hay is backed up to the coast, and shipments to Japan, China, and [United Arab] Emirates dropped off because of weakness in those economies,” Taylor says.

Rains arrive earlier now

Changes in Idaho’s climate have forced the Wolfes to adjust their harvest schedule, Billy Wolfe says.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, most hay farmers started cutting on of Memorial Day weekend, Billy Wolfe says. Cutting would start on Saturday so employees wouldn’t stray too far from the farm over the long weekend.

“They couldn’t keep us sober, but they could keep us close,” he says.

The Wolfes now cut earlier each year to beat the spring rain, which arrives earlier.

“This year, we started cutting in April, and we still got rained on,” Billy Wolfe says.

You’re scared to death when you see those clouds.

Hay farmer and broker Billy Wolfe

A string of bad years will persuade many other growers to convert fields to other crops, which will help the Wolfe brothers by lessening hay supply in the region, he says. The Wolfes can weather three years of operating below cost of production, a luxury growers on smaller farms can’t afford, he says.

“We’re in year two,” Billy Wolfe says. “If this sticks around one more year, a person might have to think about taking hay out. There will be a lot of hay coming out this year.”

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @IDS_ZachKyle. This story appears in the July 20-Aug. 16, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on agriculture. Click here for the daily Statesman e-edition, including Business Insider (subscription required).

Hay vs. straw

Most hay grown in Idaho is alfalfa, the nutrient-rich feed preferred by many dairies and feed lot operators. Idaho farmers grew hay on 1 million acres in 2012, according to the most recent U.S. census data. More than 300 alfalfa varieties are available to U.S. farmers, according to the Idaho Hay and Forage association. Hay is the largest crop in the Treasure Valley and in most of Idaho.

Straw — the stalk left over from harvested grain — lacks the nutrition needed to aid cow growth and milk production, though it can be used as an alternative animal feed. Straw is not included in Idaho hay sales.

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