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The summer drought facing Central Oregon created challenges for Crook County agriculture this season

TONY AHERN - An industrial hemp field on Lower Crooked River Road is one of a growing number of new hemp crops in Centtral Oregon. Crook County had approximately 49,000 head of cattle (grazing in the background) in 2020.

Juggling irrigation water to deal with summer drought was the main challenge for farmers and ranchers in Jefferson and Crook counties this year.

In Crook County, OSU Extension Agronomist Mylen Bohle said grass hay crops were down, but alfalfa yields were good, as long as they had irrigation water.

"Crook County had way more water than Jefferson County, and it did not run out of water," he said.

He explained that Crook County's irrigation water comes from the same year's snowfall. But Jefferson County's irrigation water depends on the previous year's snowfall.

Looking at future forage crops, if the drought continues, Bohle said, "The best yields for grass and alfalfa are on the first cutting, and that's the most efficient time to use water. Alfalfa has a huge tap root, so it can make it through a drought to the next year. The grass plant doesn't have that root system, and it doesn't do well. But bluegrass and quack grass have rhizomes with their root system, so they can survive."

Looking at Jefferson County, Bohle said, "Some 40 percent of forage (hay and alfalfa) acres were drying up. Farmers harvested the first and second cuts, then were running out of water, so they dried the field up or put the water on higher value crops."

"A lot of acres were fallow because it costs money to plant, and not a lot of forage fields were planted," Bohle added.

Growers who planted higher value crops, such as onion, carrot seed or grass seed, would have saved part of their irrigation allotment to water them. As the water in Haystack Reservoir got drawn way down, North Unit Irrigation District cut off water deliveries for 15 days, from Sept. 17 through Oct. 1, to allow it to refill.

Irrigation water was turned back on from Oct. 2 to Oct. 22, to give farmers one last chance to water crops.

"This was the third year of drought in a row for Jefferson County, and because Wickiup Reservoir was drained, next year won't be much better for the county. It will take a couple of really hard snowfall years to get back to normal," Bohle said.

As for crop yields, Bohle noted, "As long as there was water, alfalfa fields were really good, but overall yields were probably down because growers cut off water for the fourth cutting. Grass hay yields were down due to the hot weather."

Bohle tracks forages and did not have yield figures for vegetable seed and wheat crops. At the Farm Service Agency, Director Cameron Kirsch didn't yet have acreage reports either.

Noting it was an unusual year, Kirsch said, "We're behind, which is not normal. We received 500 reports from farmers to process and have 200 left to go before we'll have totals."

NUID keeps track of the number of acres of each crop that are grown within its irrigation district, but those figures won't be finalized until the middle of November or first of December, the office said.

Hemp crops

Bohle said there was a big change in the amount of industrial hemp (for CBD oil) being raised.

Statewide, farmers signed up to grow 67,000 hemp acres in 2019, compared to signups for 27,000 acres in 2020.

Bohle attributed the big drop to several factors. "In 2019, there was an early freeze, and growers didn't factor in the costs of equipment, labor, the time needed, and where to store it until it could be processed," he said.

Although there are fewer acres this year, he noted, "The stuff I saw looked really good. Most farmers know what they're doing this year. Hemp is being harvested now."

He mentioned that one Crook County grower, Brian Barney, was growing four different varieties of hemp for fiber instead of CBD oil, as an experiment.

Preliminary figures from NUID show a big hemp field drop in Jefferson County, from 1,900 acres in 2019 to just 358 acres grown in 2020.

The Ochoco Irrigation District office in Crook County said it no longer compiles crop acreage reports, so information on hemp was not available.

Livestock

OSU Extension Livestock Agent Scott Duggan said Crook County ranchers had 49,000 head of cattle this year, and Jefferson County had 17,400 head.

"It's been a very drought year and the rangeland didn't last as long," Duggan said.

"Ranchers brought their cattle down from rangeland early, anywhere from two to six weeks, to graze irrigated pastures. Then they will feed hay as the grass freezes," he said.


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