By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
For The Basin Business Journal
KENNEWICK — Steamed hay. It sounds like a delicacy you might hand-feed to Japanese cows in between slurps of beer as you sing them sweet songs and raise them for Kobe beef.
For Utah hay farmer Dave Staheli, however, steam seemed to be the miracle answer to a big problem.
It was the summer of 1994, a hot dry summer in southern Utah, a summer without dew. According to a brochure from Staheli West, the company Staheli would go on to found, Dave “was faced with the decision to bale dry hay that would shatter the leaves and lower the value of the hay or continue to wait and risk further loss of quality.”
Facing what looked to be a no-win situation, Staheli remembered workers at a Mexican restaurant steaming tortillas to make them more pliable and easier to use. Thinking steam might help make hay easier to bale without getting it too wet, Staheli experimented with his wife’s pressure cooker and “was amazed at the results.”
Nearly 25 years later, at the Northwest Hay Expo 2019 in Kennewick, Spencer Douglas stands in front of a giant Dewpoint 6210, hoping to get farmers across the West interested in this strange-looking device — a big, red tank with fire hoses dangling from the back.
Douglas says steaming will make hay farming more efficient because it will give farmers more time to harvest and bale hay.
“My experience has been, when I drive around the West, anywhere, including here, when people tell me that there’s an environment with too much dew, I will show you a parked baler,” he said. “What’s happening is they are waiting for the dew to come off, and once the dew comes off, they can get to work.”
“But they can only go to work for a limited amount of time,” Douglas continued. “By the time that dew has come off enough to get the work done, within an hour or two hours, (the hay) is going to be too dry to bale any longer.”
Because of the very narrow window for harvesting, Douglas said many hay farmers invest in tractors and balers “to bale as many acres as (they) can in as short a period of time.”
“As soon as you would shut down, kick the steam on, and continue to bale for another four, six, as many as eight hours,” he said.
This means one farmer with a tractor-steamer-baler can do as much work as three or four farmers with tractors and balers can.
“There are a lot of ways a machine pays for itself,” Douglas said. “And this does probably faster than any capital investment.”
Staheli West has ambitions to transform the hay industry, and Douglas said the company sees a market for the Dewpoint 6210 in the state of Washington of anywhere from 300 to 500 machines — more than they have sold nationwide right now.
But a lot of the challenge is showing farmers from places that aren’t as dry as southern Utah that steaming has benefits for them as well, Douglas said.
“That’s kind of the challenge of the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “A lot of farmers are saying we have too much dew, we already have enough dew, we don’t need a machine that makes dew.”
But, as Douglas noted, too much dew means idle balers and work time lost.
“It’s a matter of getting farmers to adopt a technology and realize that it’s more valuable than they’re giving it credit for,” he said.