Kings of the Hills: Baling Wheat Residue in the Palouse

Through careful stewardship and adaptation to changing times, producers in the Palouse region have not only sustained their operations, but also found new markets.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole & Young Kwak

As much as any locale in North America, mistakes are magnified in the Palouse region of Washington state. Spin out on a 43-degree slope and create a rut that will take years to fix, well after it creates a trench that could swallow a tractor. Turn too tight on that same slope and roll a combine. Leave topsoil uncovered and lose tons … quickly.

Tractor farming the hills of the Palouse region

Farming the hills of the Palouse region.

No doubt, the rolling and often steep hills in this area, which stretch from southern Washington into western Idaho, are a sight to behold. Carved by glaciers, wind and rain, the landscape here looks like rumpled satin or giant multi-hued dunes. That this ground was ever farmed is a tribute to human ingenuity and determination. That it’s still farmed is a testament of its handlers’ stewardship.

“You’re not going to find any country in the world that’s as steep, that pulls these kinds of yields,” says Byron Seney, a fourth-generation producer who primarily farms wheat on about 10,000 acres near Dayton, Wash. “This particular ground, right here, has probably about a 90-bushel average on winter wheat. It’s incredible the crops we can pull off of it when we’re not in a drought year.” He pauses and points up at a hill next to his farmyard and adds, “It’s just how to manage those hills so all that topsoil up there doesn’t end up down here.”

Protecting Soil, Managing Residue

Brian Seney, fourth-generation producer in the Palouse region

Byron Seney

For farmers in the Palouse, keeping soil in place requires more effort than in most farming regions. According to a paper from the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s estimated that 40% of soils here have been lost to erosion since the early 1900s, when steep hillsides were converted to grain production from hay and pastureland. By some estimates, erosion rates on some slopes have been as high as 200 tons per acre, per year.

One of the main reasons for its erodibility is the makeup of the soil itself, and, ironically, it’s the silty composition of that dirt that makes it so valuable. The silt has exceptional capacity to hold water, which plants can use during what are normally dry summers in the Palouse. Add that silt to steep slopes and cultivation, and farmers have a fight on their hands to keep their soil in place.

“In a matter of 50 to 60 years,” explains Seney, “we’ve [gone from] having ditches in the field and having severe water runoff issues, and a lot of wind erosion issues … to preserving that ground.” By some estimates, average erosion rates are now between roughly 10 to 15 acres per ton per year (which are still double to triple average rates in the U.S.). That decrease is thanks in large part to practices such as no-till seeding, use of chemical weed management and conservation tillage, as well as special attention to residue.

Curtis Coombs and Jason Lynch, enterprising producers in Washington

Curtis Coombs and Jason Lynch, enterprising producers in Washington.

In many older-school operations, wheat stubble was often considered a hindrance and was plowed under, burned or both. In recent years, however, several factors have changed how farmers view what’s left behind after harvest. First, the value of residue to protect such highly erodible soil has been better understood. Also, due to new varieties and double-cropping, more straw remains on the ground than is needed and new regulations have limited burning what remains. Last and not least, markets for wheat straw have developed, giving producers a new revenue stream.

“Our 10-year average on the wheat ground has been about 100 bushels to the acre,” says Curtis Coombs, who along with his son-in-law Jason Lynch, farms about 7,000 acres near Waitsburg, Wash. “So, if you try to manage that type of residue, to put another crop back on it within a short period of like two months or so, you have to do something with that residue.”

New Revenue Stream

Due in part to regulations that limit what they can burn off their fields, Coombs and Lynch, as well as other producers such as Seney, have found a way to get unwanted residue off the field: They sell it. “We’ve worked very hard,” explains Coombs, “to create markets in the dairy industry, in the feedlots and all that. It’s worked very well for us.”

When collected directly off the ground, typical prices for wheat straw are low compared to other feedstuff. That’s due to the residue having a relatively low nutritional value and the need for it to be supplemented with higher quality feeds.

Seney says he charges in the $30 to $35 range for straw baled off the ground. However, when he bales it directly behind a combine, he gets upward of $50-plus per ton. Coombs and Lynch charge in the same range.

The price difference is due to quality. Instead of baling it from a windrow already on the ground, Seney, Coombs and Lynch use a single-pass system with a baler connected directly to a combine via a conveyor belt. Not only will the bales then have less ash content, they also catch the wheat and chaff, which provides more nutritional value than wheat straw alone.

Growing Markets

Jason's son Chase "checks" the equipment before it heads to the fields.

Jason’s son Chase “checks” the equipment before it heads to the fields.

According to Lynch, the learning curve was steep. He and Coombs had farmed just wheat and rotational crops prior to baling straw. “First time we fired up the baler, we just knew that square things were supposed to go out the back,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s worked though,” continues Lynch, who, along with Coombs, produces between 16,000 and 20,000 bales a year. Seney, who also does custom work, bales 30,000 to 35,000 a year.

Both operations have found customers relatively nearby. “You can’t transport it a long distance because it’s a low-value commodity,” says Coombs of the dairies and feedlots that buy his bales. In Seney’s case, he says he sells to the largest feedlot in Washington, as well as dairies.

Plans are also in place for pulp companies to use wheat straw in production of paper products. Dayton-based Columbia Pulp is reportedly planning to buy more than 200,000 tons of straw annually, once their new plant near Lyon’s Ferry is fully operational—as early as 2017. Nationally, cellulosic ethanol plants are looking to expand, using straw as well as other residue.

“The straw business is a pretty essential thing for us,” notes Coombs, and he expects it to grow in years to come.

“We’re searching for more acres,” says Seney when asked about growth of his wheat straw sales. “When you can earn income from something that would cost you otherwise to get rid of, like burning it, that’s just a good business opportunity.”