Weather lets farmers make hay while sun shines

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2000

The sunny weather is a welcome respite for Kenai Peninsula residents, but for hay farmers it makes all the difference between success and failure.

Along the back roads, families are working hard to "put up" the year's hay crop before the rains return. If they cannot cut, dry and bale the fragrant tall grass before it shrivels or molds, they face a tough winter digging deep into their pockets to feed horses and cattle expensive fodder shipped in from other states.

"We need a few days in a row of sunny weather," said Tommy Stephens, director of the Farm Service Agency office in Homer, which covers the peninsula and Kodiak.

The harvest in the lowland areas is behind schedule this summer because of the recent run of rainy weather, putting some of the crop past its prime. But with fair skies forecast, farmers are hustling, and it is not too late for them to catch up, he said.

In 1999, growers harvested about 2,400 tons of hay from 2,100 acres on the peninsula, according to figures compiled by the Alaska Agricultural Statistics Service.

The hay grown is a mixture of introduced and native grasses.

Most fields at some time were tilled up and planted with domesticated varieties of timothy or foxtail, improved for hay purposes. The dominant native grass, Calamagrostis, is equally nutritious and fares better during years of harsh growing weather, but its food value fades rapidly at the end of the season if it is not harvested early, Stephens said.

Some farmers here have begun using the big round bales, which tip the scales at 600 to 1,200 pounds. However, most of the hay still goes into the old-fashioned 40-to-60-pound bales a single person can toss over the fence.

"Even though they are rectangular, in the industry they are called square," Stephens said.

Hay is grown in small patches all over the peninsula, but the areas with the most agricultural activity are Funny River, Sterling, Ridgeway, Ninilchik, the Homer bench lands and out East End Road near the head of Kachemak Bay, he said.

Most people work together to get the work done. Many have no haying equipment of their own, but rely on friends and neighbors. The farmers with the tractors and attachments to cut, rake and bale finish their own fields first, then work on the land of others in exchange for a percentage of the finished bales, Stephens said.

The commercial value of the finished product varies greatly, depending on the condition and size of the bales. Dampness can cause rot and mold. The highest quality hay for horses, which require a better grade than cattle do, commands a premium price.

In the central peninsula, most of the hay goes to horses. On the south peninsula, it is divided roughly equally between horses and cattle. A smattering of other livestock on the peninsula -- elk, bison, llamas, alpaca, sheep, goats and reindeer -- also munch the fodder.

Despite the iffy harvesting weather up until this point, it should end up being a good hay year if the sunshine holds, Stephens said.

"We've had pretty good growing conditions so far," he said.

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