Hay farmers in Central Oregon face challenges from drought, water shortages

November 21, 2021
Hay farmers in Central Oregon face challenges from drought, water shortages

Central Oregon hay farmers have faced challenges this year with water shortages, drought conditions and supply chain issues.

It all spells more struggles and less profits as farmers plant smaller crops and ranchers raise smaller herds.

“Last year was the worst, especially in Central Oregon,” said Mylen Bohle, Oregon State University Crook County Extension Service agronomist. “There will be farms for sale because of this.

“They were short tens of millions in production.”

Central Oregon farmers are allotted water from area water districts to irrigate their farms, but when the water is turned off midsummer, or they receive one-third of the water they need to grow crops, as happened this year, smaller farm yields cut into their ability to grow crops. Rainfall and snow were 60% to 70% below normal, Bohle said.

And then there was the summertime heat wave that affected crops, said Bohle. A hay grower he works with only had enough water to irrigate 75 acres out of 200. The grower was able to cut hay, but by the second cutting, the 100-degree weather affected his harvest, which was cut to three-quarters of a ton, compared to then-normal 2 tons, Bohle said.

Jeff Whitaker, owner of Whitaker Farms LLC, said he scaled back his operations and changed the type of crops he planted to those needing less water because of limited irrigation allocations and the persistent drought conditions.

At one time, he’d be cutting 1,200 acres of hay per cutting through the night. But not now.

A hay farmer, since 1981, Whitaker said hay is a perennial crop and can be harvested repeatedly. Now he plants about half the acreage because of the drought and access to less water, Whitaker said.

“It’s a challenge for sure, no matter what you’re growing,” Whitaker said. “For hay growers, we use more water than other crops. But it can be rewarding too.”

In Crook, Deschutes, Jefferson and Lake counties, there are 947 farms. Deschutes County had the most number of farms with field crops that include hay farm operations, according to the most current agriculture census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2017.

Lake County grows the most amount of hay of the four counties, according to reports, but Jefferson County has the most crop diversity of the four counties, according to USDA reports.

Hay farming in the four counties represented only 0.9% of the gross domestic product in the state, but was valued at $94.2 million. Field crops accounted for about 40% of all agriculture sales, according to the USDA 2017 report. Statewide hay ranked as the No. 4 commodity in 2020, according to the USDA.

The price of hay per ton often fluctuates, according USDA. In 2016, hay sold for $164 per ton, it peaked in early 2020 at $205 and settled at $174 per ton by the end of 2020 according to the report.

There is financial assistance for farmers experiencing loss from drought and disaster, but it sometimes comes in the form of low-interest loans, which have to be repaid.

The majority of alfalfa hay grown in Central Oregon is used by dairy farmers across the Cascades, Washington and California, Bohle said. But horses, llamas, alpacas and livestock all eat alfalfa hay too.

“There’s a lot of demand for horse hay and other critter hay,” Bohle said. “It’s really short in Central Oregon and with the drought going on, a lot of livestock producers may not have been able to produce enough for their own and have to purchase it.”

The challenge of farming isn’t relegated to those who farm hay. It also affects cattle ranches, Whitaker said.

Cattlemen can’t find hay to buy and when they do it’s more expensive, he said. They use a combination of alfalfa hay and orchard grass to feed their livestock, said Doug Breese, a Central Oregon cattle rancher.

It’s affected how many head of cattle that Breese, a fourth -generation cattle rancher and farmer, keeps on his 5,000 acre Pilot Butte Hereford ranch. He normally runs about 200 head of cattle, he said.

Now he’s down to about 50, said Breese.

Part of it is he’s edging toward retirement, the rest is there’s not enough grassland for the cattle to feed off.

“There’s a lot of farms that have depleted their herds because it was so dry and they had to spread out hay,” said Breese, 79. “We’re getting by. But we had to quit irrigating in mid-July.”

Without rain, the grass that livestock graze on isn’t high quality because irrigation depends upon levels in the reservoirs, Breese said.

“This year it didn’t take the cattle long to eat the grass,” Breese said. “I’ve never seen it this bad. We’ve had some dry spells before.”


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