Jun 30, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterMotorists venturing into the countryside of Fremont County this week are likely to see alfalfa farmers at work, or notice the long rows of cut hay in what used to be fields full of waist-high plants.
Officials said the first cutting of the season came a bit earlier this year. In 2012 Fremont County experienced severe drought conditions that kept many farmers from putting up hay until about July 1.
"It might be a few days to even a week earlier (in 2013)," University of Wyoming Extension educator Ron Cunningham said. "The weather has been nice."
The last week of June is more typical for the first harvest, Cunningham said. But whether the cutting will have a high yield is a tougher data point to pin down.
"Some (farmers) are saying it's real good; some are saying it's not good at all," Cunningham said.
One local farmer, Gordon Medow, started cutting his Missouri Valley hay fields on June 27. He said he didn't know what the yield would be yet, but he didn't expect tonnage to differ much from 2012.
"We're going to be about the same as last year," Meadow said.
The strong growth this year and the earlier first cutting could leave more time for more alfalfa to grow, according to Cunningham, who said Fremont County could produce more overall crop tonnage than last year. But Cunningham said overarching trends don't tell much about individual operators, whose outcomes are dictated by their specific conditions.
No matter the amount they produce, however, alfalfa farmers will enjoy selling it at historically high prices this year.
The price for large bales of alfalfa is at $180 to $200 per ton in central and western Wyoming, according to a June 27 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That price is unchanged from a week ago.
Mixed grass and alfalfa are trading much higher in central and western Wyoming, the June 27 USDA report stated. The product is selling for $285 per ton for small bales and $265 per ton for large bales.
Prices for alfalfa in the state have stayed high since climbing steadily through 2012 from around $150 per ton to around $200 per ton, according to USDA data.
Those high prices have raised the operating cost for live stock producers, however.
The first step in harvesting a crop of hay is cutting it. Farmers use large machines called windrowers or swathers to knock the hay down. Windrowers are easily identified by their long blades arranged in a cylinder shape across the front of the machine. The blades, or knives, spin and cut down the plants. Some swathers have covers, or long, low metal boxes, over their blades.
As they go along, the machines push the cut hay together into rows. The narrow piles that run the length of the field are left for several days to dry.
After the sun and wind have sapped enough moisture from the plants, farmers come along in a baler. As the name suggests, balers are used to pick up the plants and bind them into bales.
The balers also are easy to spot because they usually have a long windrow in front of them and a trail of tidy hay bales behind them on a stubbly field. They also tend to have a bale forming on their back end.
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