, Newburyport, MA

July 12, 2013

Rain takes its toll on N.H. hay production

Wet weather taking its toll on local hay crop

By Doug Ireland
staff writer

---- — While so many rainy days may have ruined some summer vacation plans, local farmers are drenched in misery of a different kind.

Their hopes for a bountiful hay crop have been washed away by one torrential downpour after another. The dismal weather is diminishing their profits and increasing costs.

“The hay is so wet you can’t get anything done,” said Brian Ferdinando of J&F Farms in Derry. “You can’t bale it.”

J&F hays about 80 acres a year, cutting the hay twice each summer, Ferdinando said.

Although hay sales comprise only a small percentage of the farm’s total business, a poor crop can still take a toll on finances.

The best hay — or “horse hay” — is in high demand. It sells for $6 to $7 a bale. But when hay gets wet in the field, there is a decline in nutritional quality.

That hay, commonly called “construction hay,” is sold to contractors at roughly half the price, Ferdinando said. It’s then used for building projects, often as mulch.

Ferdinando started haying nearly a month ago, but the constant rain has interfered with his first cut. He last cut hay a week ago and is anxiously awaiting the return of dry, sunny weather.

It takes about three days for a soggy, wet field to dry out, he said.

“I need a few days without rain,” Ferdinando said.

The hay Ferdinando cuts is used and sold at the farm. He also still makes 30 to 50 trips to Canada each summer to purchase truckloads for roughly $3 or $4 a bale. He sells the Canadian hay at home for $6 or $7 a bale.

Once hay is cut, farmers need to make sure it doesn’t rot in damp conditions.

“You have to keep moving it,” Ferdinando said.

While Ferdinando, 50, said this year definitely ranks among the wettest seasons in 35 years of haying, it doesn’t compare to 2009. That’s when rain ruined hay and other crops, especially strawberries.

Ferdinando said it was so wet that year, he couldn’t begin haying until July 20 — a month behind schedule.

“It was really bad that year,” he said. “The hay was absolutely no good.”

In Atkinson, farmer Alice Lewis is relieved her first of two or three hay crops this season has been cut.

But because of all the rain, customers — mostly horse owners — are skeptical about the hay’s quality.

“I would say it’s one of the worse (seasons),” Lewis said. “They all ask the same question, ‘What’s it like?’”

Lewis, who has a 100-acre farm with approximately 40 cattle, takes it all in stride.

“That’s the way it goes,” she said. “Farming is never easy.”

Hay is an important crop for New Hampshire’s farmers, according to Lorraine Merrill, the state’s agricultural commissioner and a Stratham dairy farmer.

More than 1,500 farms across the state harvest hay, she said. In 2011, Granite State farmers cut 105,000 tons of hay, worth an estimated $20 million.

But this summer, it’s a different story.

“It’s been a tough, tough year,” Merrill said. “This has been an extremely challenging year for hay.”

A rainy spring has led to a damp summer, delaying cutting and leading to “overmature hay “ that is brown, less nutritious and not as appealing to livestock, she said.

“What we will see is our dairy cows not making as much milk,” Merrill said. “It’s also a decrease in quality, not just quantity.”

That leads to less profitable hay and higher dairy and meat prices, she said.

Merrill said representatives from the U.S Department of Agriculture are just starting to tally the number of failing hay crops.

Farmers without crop insurance could be in rough shape, she said.

“They are trying to document the losses now,” Merrill said. “There are a lot of frustrated farmers out there.”