Many potato and onion growers near the Oregon-California border don't have time for the alfalfa they grow as a rotation crop. They plant and irrigate it, but don't want to harvest and market it.

And that's just fine with Tim Parks and Denis Hickey. They've built a successful custom harvesting business while marketing their customers' hay. In fact, the alfalfa's usually sold before their balers hit the fields.

Parks & Hickey Hay Sales, Merrill, OR, sells more than 25,000 tons of hay each year, says Parks. Of that, around 10,000 tons are custom harvested and another 10,000 are bought and sold. They put up nearly 6,000 tons of their own hay.

Both former potato growers, Parks and Hickey had grown weary of the risky nature of that business and started their hay operation over five years ago.

“The area we're in is small,” says Parks. “We're kind of the big fish in a little pond. There's only a couple hundred thousand acres here and we do a big part of the alfalfa.”

Their clients have their hands full with their potato and onion ventures, adds Park. “They don't want to fool with the hay. For about six months, the haying business is seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and those guys aren't set up for that.”

The growers are also happy that Parks, who handles most of the summer baling, and Hickey, who manages the trucking, have ready hay markets. After selling the hay, the custom harvesters write checks to their clients, taking out harvesting, selling and shipping fees.

“We're probably marketing 60% to California dairies, 20% for export and 20% to feed stores,” Parks says. Exported hay is handled through other brokers. “Most of the guys we sell to are from the countries we export to and they understand all the ins and outs. Exporting is a pretty complicated business.”

They market their clients' hay on test to four large dairies, with 4,000 cows or more, and about 20 smaller dairies. Their goal is to provide alfalfa in the 23% protein range. “Last year the quality was way off; we had a hot year and a lot of problems,” Parks says.

A major quality challenge, of course, is having enough water in this Klamath Falls region.

“We had a real poor winter as far as precipitation goes, and I expect to see some problems,” Parks says. “It really depends on how much water comes out of the mountains.”