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Moving hay to China

Brad Nelson Published on 27 September 2012

Some 30-odd years ago we delivered baled alfalfa hay to an export hay cuber in Clarkston, Washington.

The baled hay was cubed, loaded in export containers and barged down the Snake River to the Columbia River and eventually to the port at Portland, Oregon, and then on to Japan.

Honda was the entity that was importing the cubes into Japan.

The cube mill owner told us of a conversation he had with one of the Honda people. “They told me they hated hay cubes.

They hated alfalfa. The only reason they were dealing in it was that the Japanese government was putting an insane amount of pressure on them to import something, anything, from the U.S. to Japan.”

We hated the haul. The hay came from Mountain Home, Idaho. The route was U.S. Highway 95, which at the time had a handful of one-lane-for-trucks bridges, was mostly a two-lane road and one of the dangers of that road was hitting bears with the trucks.

This led to Lewiston, Idaho, and then we crossed the border to adjoining Clarkston, Washington.

By the miles, one should have been able to make the round trip in a day. Add in the hills, curves, bridges, deer, elk, livestock and bears on the road, and it become more often a three-day round trip.

The distance was such that a paying load for the trip home was necessary. The paying load home was usually a load of lumber.

The loading places were usually out of the way and kept their own hours. Getting rid of the load in southern Idaho was just as tedious.

The export market has matured and expanded in the past several years. With that expansion have come new markets, and some of those new markets have new restrictions.

Most of us are familiar with the hoops we have to jump through to get hay into Japan. While each country has a responsibility to keep non-native species of plants, insects and animals out of their countries, some of us feel that the restrictions are there just because the importing country can get away with it.

Japan forbids dirt, wheat, barley and any “cousins” of wheat and barley, as well as quack grass. If any of the above, as well as live insects of any kind or live rodents, show up in a container of hay, the whole shipment is sent back.

Timothy hay has its own set of protocols. There is nothing wrong with timothy hay by itself, but other grasses can be almost impossible to detect in a double-compressed bale of this grass hay.

Some of those other grasses are seen as cousins to wheat and barley, which are hosts to the Hessian fly, a potential pest to Japan’s native rice growers.

Wheat, barley and its cousins can harbor the eggs of the Hessian fly. The current protocols are that each container of timothy hay must be fumigated after loading for seven days, at an average inside-the-container temperature of over 70ºF, followed by 24 hours of aeration before the container can be delivered to the ports for transport to Japan.

Everything must be documented along the way, including a special numbered copper plate that is inside the container when it is fumigated by aluminum phosphate. The copper plate changes color with prolonged exposure to the fumigant gas, which also kills any Hessian fly eggs (or anything else) that happens to be inside the container.

Following this, a special USDA APHIS seal is applied to the closed doors of the container. The number of this seal, and the copper plate inside, confirm compliance with the protocols.

USDA personnel monitor the process, and once a year a representative from Japan’s Plant Quarantine group visits the U.S. to observe the process and review the records of each exporter enrolled in the program.

Yes, the procedures are a royal pain, but it makes possible the export to Japan of hundreds of thousands of tons of timothy hay each year.

Enter the emerging China market for American hay. At first, all product going to China needed to be fumigated, but not under the same protocols as for Japan.

There were none. After some false starts, the fumigation demand was dropped for alfalfa hay. What has emerged is a record-keeping requirement that makes the hay traceable to the field it was grown on, along with a record of all chemicals applied and the previous crop grown on that field.

The next item that stifled the movement of hay to China is verticillium wilt. Verticillium albo-atrum is a fungus that affects large areas of irrigated land in the Pacific Northwest. The best response to this pest has been alfalfa varieties that are resistant to the fungus.

It will not survive in the soil without a live host, so crop rotation is another effective means of control. The fungus can survive in dry hay for up to three years.

The fungus was identified in the U.S. either in 1967 or 1976, depending on which source material you find. Infestation can reduce yields by 50 percent and cut the life of alfalfa stands to three or four years in areas where five to seven years is the norm.

China, of course, wants to keep harmful things out of their country. The verticillium wilt issue surfaced after hay exports to China were underway. China wanted hay to be tested for the presence of the offending fungus before the hay was deemed suitable for export to them.

The method of testing includes “grab samples” (as opposed to core samples) of hay being selected for this export market.

Paper bags of grab samples are sent to the lab (add to the recipe that very few labs are set up for this test) and tested for the presence of the offending fungus. There are two tests.

The one most commonly used in the U.S. was used to clear hay for shipment. On arrival, China used the other method and found verticillium present.

This left a couple of the largest players in the hay export industry banned from exporting hay to China by China.

The response was, “Until China gets their ducks in a huddle, we have other markets for our hay.” In a rare flurry of bureaucratic action, an acceptable test procedure was put in place and exports are moving to China.

It still lacks the “many years of smooth sailing” that accompany exports to Japan, but it is working for the time being.

Hay growers need to be aware that verticillium wilt is a deal-breaker for export to China. They will be asked for a chemical record and a crop history for each field.

Hay for this market cannot be stored on dirt; gravel or a bottom tarp is acceptable. Hay for the China market must be segregated from other hays and tagged so it can be positively identified and traced back to its field of origin.

China is under immense pressure to do something about the imbalance of trade with the U.S. and for them to import hay from us helps that situation. They want our hay.

They need our hay, since they do not have the space, climate and irrigation to produce what they need domestically. China is coming of age, and its people want milk to drink and meat to eat.

Exports to China remain, as with Japan and the other Pacific Rim countries, a balancing act. They must protect their homelands from plant and insect pests and predators, while at the same time ensuring a consistent supply of the feeds and products needed.  FG

Exports to China remain, as with Japan and the other Pacific Rim countries, a balancing act. Photo courtsey of FG staff.



Brad Nelson
Freelance Author
Royal City, Washington