Hot, smoky growing season meant more irrigation needs
Low moisture levels and a hot, dry, smoky summer affected the agricultural scene in Crook County.
The 2018 growing season started out with a little moisture, but there had not been much snow in the fall and winter, and then it was one hot summer, reported Mylen Bohle, the Central Oregon area Extension agronomist with Oregon State University Extension Service.
During the crop year, which is from Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018, the Crook County area had only between 6 and 8 inches of precipitation.
"With hotter temperatures this growing season, more irrigation water was needed to produce crops," Bohle pointed out.
The hot weather was good for legumes, like alfalfa and clover, which do well in hot weather.
However, cool season grasses, like orchardgrass, tall fescue, bluegrass and bromegrasses, do not like hot weather.
Growers planted and grew much less wheat acres across the Central Oregon region this season because wheat prices have been down for a while and are below break-even prices, Bohle reported.
"Hay prices have been good and steady but not as high as they were a few years ago," he said. "Good for the hay buyer, not as good for the hay seller."
He also noted that dairy prices are down, so the dairies cannot afford to pay as much for high-quality hay.
He did note, however, that the horse hay market is usually always good.
"Other than some rain on first cutting hay, rain was not a problem this year for putting up hay," Bohle said.
However, grass hay yields were negatively affected by the hot temperatures.
"If irrigation crop water needs could not be kept up with, then yields would have suffered," he pointed out. "Wheat, while not the usual acreage, might have been affected negatively as well with hot day-time temperatures and depending upon being able to keep up with the crop water needs."
He noted that typically hot and dry windy summers reveal the weak links in growers' irrigation systems and management.
The wildfire smoke also affected the growing season.
Smoke reduces the amount of sunlight that hits the plant leaves, so photosynthesis is reduced. But smoke also slightly reduced the temperature. Smoke can taint hay and grapes, affecting smell and thus the taste of the product.
Bohle also noted that there were a number of fields planted to industrial hemp this year, which is a new crop for Crook County.
This crop is mostly irrigated by drip irrigation, which is the most water use efficient system, although rodents are always a problem with drip systems.
"I would expect to see more acres planted to hemp in Central Oregon in the future," Bohle said. "Our drier falls are more conducive to growing hemp in Eastern Oregon than on the west side of the Cascades."
He also noted that a couple of growers, who have converted to more water and power use efficient pivots systems, actually saved power and increased economic yields compared to growing crops under the old pivot irrigation systems.
Bohle said higher land costs and input costs, such as machinery, irrigation systems, seed and fertilizer costs, are increasing at a faster pace than commodity prices that farmers are receiving for their products.
He pointed out that each year it gets harder for farmers and ranchers to employ laborers.
Interest rates on farm operating loans have also been rising.
"I just heard an ag economist say that return on investment in agriculture has been averaging 1 percent annually for the last 50 years," he said.
Looking to the 2019 growing season, Bohle said above average snow in the Ochoco and the Cascade mountains will be needed this winter to replenish the reservoirs.
"Crop year 2019 could see some acres not irrigated early on as well as acres that are dried up mid-way through the growing season," he said. "I believe four out of the last five years have been below average for snowfall across Central Oregon."