Haymaking has returned to Camas Prairie in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. Last summer, for the first time in half a century, haymaking equipment trundled across the hay meadows surrounding the tiny town of Ukiah.
Ukiah resident Wayne Barber remembers when haymaking was an annual event in the prairie. At that time, the meadows were dotted with enormous hay barns and cattle stayed year-round on some ranches.
“I came up to Ukiah in 1945,” says Barber. “I cut all that field with a team of horses and a mowing machine.”
Barber says that, after a run of abnormally cold winters in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the ranchers who had wintered their cattle near Ukiah moved them to lower country to calve. They used the Camas Prairie for summer pasture and the meadows were no longer hayed.
Times have changed again, and the mowers, rakes and balers are back.
“It's economics. It's worth it now,” says Merlin Hughes, who helps his son Kevin with the family's cow-calf operation at Butter Creek, about 50 miles from their higher-elevation ranch near Ukiah.
“It takes less hay in the wintertime when we move the cattle to the lower elevations. There's just less winter,” says Hughes.
When hay prices began to climb in 2007, the father and son decided they could get more value from their summer range by cutting some of the grass rather than grazing it.
“We were not using everything all the time, says Hughes. “We rest pasture and rotate. By changing our management we were able to free up that pasture for hay.”
Last July, Pat Scott's Express Hay of Echo, OR, custom-harvested a total of 650 acres for four Camas Prairie landowners. Most of the meadows, which are not irrigated, grow a mix of native sedges and native and introduced grasses.
During the previous summer, the Hugheses rotary-mowed and harrowed 140 acres of pasture to prepare it for haying. They prepared even more for this year.
They usually graze their hay meadow twice. Last year they pastured the cows higher up and brought in Scott and his equipment. After the hay was baled, they moved the cows in to graze the stubble and regrowth.
Hughes estimates that he got a half ton to the acre. “It's something we didn't have before,” he says.