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Farms quit alfalfa for pricier crops

Bob McMillan and his 11 year-old dog Bubba make their way over a row of cut alfalfa Wednesday near his home on Bigelow Gulch Road. 
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Bob McMillan and his 11 year-old dog Bubba make their way over a row of cut alfalfa Wednesday near his home on Bigelow Gulch Road. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

If you think feeding a 175-pound teenager is expensive, try feeding a 1,200-pound horse.

Hay prices are at all-time highs and climbing. That has cattlemen culling their herds and equestrians unloading some of their horses.

“We’re getting more mature cows going through the auction now than we normally ever would,” said Ted Kerst, who has owned Davenport’s Stockland Livestock Exchange for 25 years. “They’re cutting their losses.”

Well-bred, well-trained horses are still expensive. But when it comes to yearlings from “common” mares, “you can hardly give them away,” Kerst said.

“People just can’t afford to keep them,” said Heather Reither, assistant trainer at Spokane’s Double Eagle Stables, who recently saw bidders pay $25 for yearlings that she would have expected to fetch $1,000 a few years back.

The hay problem is one of supply and demand, said Phil Petersen, an agronomist for Washington State University Extension.

With grain prices high, many farmers have converted hay fields to wheat or corn. The competition is driving up lease costs for agricultural land, forcing some hay farmers to downsize.

The result: Nationwide, the acreage devoted to alfalfa – the deep-rooted perennial harvested for hay – has dropped about 11 percent since 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The loss is more pronounced in the Northwest: 13 percent in Washington and 9 percent in Idaho since last year, the USDA reports.

Meanwhile, demand for hay is high, with roughly half of Washington’s crop being exported to Asia and other overseas markets, Petersen said.

That means hay farmers can ask more for their product. And it’s a good thing, because they barely met expenses for years and now those expenses are going up, said Bob McMillan, who’s grown hay for 35 years on Peone Prairie.

“Diesel prices will kill ya,” and repair costs are up, too, McMillan said.

Farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and McMillan figures he lost about a third of his first cutting to a June 11 hailstorm. In the Columbia Basin, where most of Washington’s alfalfa is grown, a late spring set back the crop, meaning farmers will get three or four cuttings, rather than four or five, McMillan said.

The USDA reports that alfalfa last year sold for a nationwide average of $138 a ton, up from $90 in 2003. But local livestock owners say the price of quality hay has taken a much bigger jump.

Reither, at Double Eagle Stables, said she’s getting a break from her longtime supplier in Chewelah but still pays $150 a ton, plus $115 for delivery of a 3-ton load.

Dave McCullough, who raises beef to sell directly to consumers, said he paid $135 a ton early last summer but saw the price climb to $275 during the winter.

Three horses might go through a ton of hay in about two months; three cattle could polish it off in under a month.

Everyone expects the cost to keep climbing, and some say it could skyrocket.

Cheney rancher Maurice Robinette said he recently got a call from a friend who grows hay in the Columbia Basin. The farmer had just signed a contract to sell his hay for $200 a ton – and the buyer will cut and bale it himself.

Even before he received that call, Robinette had decided to cull his herd of some 100 beef cattle by about half.

“I’ve heard from a lot of other guys, and they’re doing the same,” he said. “Others are going to tough it out.”

Kerst said avid horse owners will tough it out, too.

“Their horses come first,” he said. “They’ll buy a ton of hay before they’ll buy steaks for themselves.”


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