Before George Jelmberg started growing timothy, he struggled to reach his goal of 400 hay acres. His crop rotation didn't let him seed alfalfa at the optimal time, and baling 400 acres of alfalfa before it got too mature would have been difficult, anyway.
Now with 200 acres of alfalfa and 200 of timothy, timely harvesting is easier, and he keeps his equipment operating more consistently throughout the season.
“Timothy helps spread the costs and the risks and it schedules well with alfalfa,” says Jelmberg, of Royal City, WA.
His three timothy cuttings fit nicely between four cuttings of alfalfa.
“We do our first cutting of alfalfa around May 15 followed by the timothy June 5,” he says.
Timothy production is feasible for growers like Jelmberg thanks largely to low-pressure sprinkler regulators. Timothy used to be grown only by surface irrigators and dryland hay producers because it would lodge when irrigated by high-pressure heads.
But timothy has its own set of challenges. A high percentage of premium timothy goes to the horse market, where dustiness is a big no-no. Ron Anderson, president of Anderson Hay & Grain, one of the world's largest timothy hay marketers, is clear on the subject.
“All of our growers know how important a clean, dust-free product is to our industry,” he says. “It cannot be emphasized enough.”
That's accomplished by carefully monitoring the field-drying process and baling when the moisture level has dropped below 12%. In Washington, that typically takes from four to nine days, depending on the humidity.
Jelmberg says drying timothy is more labor-intensive than drying alfalfa.
“With alfalfa we can usually rake it and go. With timothy we have to fluff it once or twice and then rake it. We've had to move a late third cutting five times to keep it from molding while hoping for a warm, breezy late-September day.”
Developing and maintaining good color is one goal shared by both timothy and alfalfa growers. In order to establish the bright green color synonymous with premium timothy, many growers apply nitrogen before each cutting. The amount applied often totals 250 lbs per acre.
Potassium and phosphorus requirements vary with soil tests, but the total N, P and K mix is rarely under 400 lbs/acre. Care must be taken not to overlap fertilizer applications because those strips will lodge.
Once color is established, it must be preserved. Growers closely monitor incoming weather systems, allowing themselves enough time between rain fronts to cut, bale and store their timothy.
One compensation for higher N costs in timothy is its seed costs. Alfalfa seed runs around $3/lb, while timothy costs $1.50/lb. And timothy's seeding rate is much lower.
Jelmberg's net return is roughly the same for timothy and alfalfa. Both yield about 7 tons/acre and command about the same price. High-quality timothy can bring up to $200 a ton, but most is priced about the same as dairy hay.