To bale or not to bale? That’s a question farmers face every year about wheat straw, which can be seen stacked in large quantities throughout Washington’s wheat country as harvest season ends.
A secondary crop for farmers whose prime concern is grain, Northwest straw is sought after by mushroom growers, livestock owners and, increasingly, for pulp.
“If people are willing to pay for it, farmers will bale it,” said Randy Fortenbery, professor and Small Grains Endowed Chair at the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University.
“The price of wheat moves the price of straw,” Fortenbery said. “And it’s not cheap to bale straw.”
When wheat prices are low, farmers may decide to get extra revenue by selling straw. If wheat prices look favorable, they may decide to put straw back in the ground as an organic-matter boost to next year’s grain crop.
“Wheat straw has definitely increased in demand over the last couple of years,” said Bill Lozier, director of supply chain for Pacific Ag, a Hermiston, Ore., based company that harvests and sells feed crops nationally. “We sell as much as we can contract for.”
Lozier credits rising straw prices to increased demand from mushroom growers in Washington and Canada.
“That’s where a lot of our straw is going,” he said. “A big mushroom farmer may buy more than 30,000 tons a year.”
Domestic agricultural demand for straw remains strong. Northwest dairies and feedlots buy straw for bedding, and some feeders blend straw into their rations for fiber.
Wheat straw alone makes for poor fodder. Low in protein and hard to digest, it’s best suited for cattle in the fall, when cows have lower nutrient requirements.
In May, storms damaged the state’s alfalfa crop. And, with the ongoing drought, farmers might not have gotten a second cutting of hay this year.
“That makes for a problem of feed availability for cows,” said Don Llewellyn, Regional Livestock Specialist with WSU Benton County Extension. “Farmers and ranchers have to look at different crop residues, like wheat straw, to fill the gap and get back on track. With an appropriate protein supplement, wheat straw can be an acceptable alternative feed.”
One might assume Washington’s ongoing drought would have put a drag on straw production. Not so, says Lozier.
“May turned really wet, so it’s been a good straw year,” he said.
“I’ve never seen this many bales, or so much baling going on in this region,” said Stephen Guy, an Extension agronomist at Washington State University.
In the field as well as in the bale, “straw has a tangible value,” said Guy.
Left in the field, straw decomposes over time, adding organic matter, which helps water infiltration and retention, nutrient availability and soil structure.
When you sell straw, “you’re exporting nutrients off the farm that must be replaced by fertilizer you have to buy,” said Guy. Straw contains nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and sulfur in low concentrations. Guy calculates that it takes about $20 in fertilizer to replace these nutrients in a ton of straw.
But while nutrients can be regained from fertilizers, organic matter itself is more difficult to replace. That drain isn’t noticeable at first.
“A farmer could do it for several years before they’d see a difference,” said Steve Norberg, Regional Agriculture Specialist with WSU’s Franklin County Extension. “But it is going to show up.”
With grain yields per acre—and residue yields—on the increase, Harrison Pettit, a co-owner of Pacific Ag and the company’s vice president of business development, says straw harvest requires a nuanced approach.
Good residue management, he said, is sustainable for the soil and adds more return per acre for the farmer.
“You can’t just take,” Pettit said. “It’s about not taking too much and leaving the right amount for long-term soil health. We feel we’re benefitting the grower and their ground by taking the right amount off.”
Farmers started making the switch to “large square” straw bales, three-by-four-by-eight feet in dimension, highly compacted and up to a ton in weight, a few decades ago.
Traditional bales, about 15 by 18 by 40 inches, weighing about 50 pounds, can still be found at farms and feed stores. Those bales, called “small square” bales, were once the most common way to store and move straw. But with a large bale, farmers can move a ton of hay in a single operation instead of 40.
“Time is money,” says Norberg. “The beauty of the large square bale is that it fits perfectly on the beds of trucks, so farmers can max out the weight they haul.”
Straw pulp mill
The Northwest straw market will change when Columbia Pulp, a Dayton-based company that turns straw into paper pulp, hits full production in 2017.
Columbia Pulp is developing a 140,000-ton-per-year pulp mill on 449 acres near Lyon’s Ferry. Manager John Begley said the company began purchasing straw from this year’s harvest. He expects the mill to begin production following the 2016 harvest, reaching full capacity the next year.
When that happens, Begley predicts that Columbia Pulp will buy about 220,000 tons.
“By our estimation, this will about double the amount of straw being baled in our area,” he said.
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Learn more about WSU research on wheat straw
• Researchers look at ways to make straw-based composite materials more competitive with wood products.
• WSU Extension offers ways for gardeners to grow plants inside a small square bale.