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Hay is not just for horses -- it wins fair prizes too

Charlie Cooper has been working on a farm since he was 6, and that experience helped the 78-year-old Merced resident win a first place in the hay competition at this year's Merced County Fair.

And at the other end of the age scale, Ashley Oliveira, a 14-year-old Gustine FFA student, also took a first in alfalfa hay competition at the fair.

The Merced fair was only the second fair where Oliveira has competed, and not only did she walk away with a win in the hay competition, she also showed the supreme grand champion hog.

Oliveira won her first in physical judging of alfalfa hay. The hay is judged on leafiness, maturity, color and purity. She also won a third place in physical judging of alfalfa at the Merced County Spring Fair in Los Banos, her first competition.

"My dad grows alfalfa, and I took over 12 acres from him," Oliveira said. Growing the hay for competition means that Oliveira decides when to irrigate, when to fertilize and when to cut and bale the hay.

Oliveira decided to show hay because she wanted a project for competition. "I needed something to show how good my hay was, so I decided to enter in the fair and take it for the judges to see," she said.

Letting the judges see good hay is something that Charlie Cooper is used to doing. For the second year in a row, he won the lab test alfalfa hay competition at the fair.

Cooper began growing hay in 1978 and was the hay grower for Diego Farms. He now grows hay for the Flint Dairy in Hanford.The hay that Cooper grows is for dairy cattle, and cows being milked needed the highest-quality, highest protein hay that can be grown. That's what Cooper excels at, and his hay is good because he takes good care of it.

"The judges want to see good, fine hay with no weeds and no grass in it, and they want it to test high," Cooper explained. In order to get that type of hay, Cooper puts winter weed killers on at the right time, keeps the stand of hay nice and clean and checks the fertility. He also gives the hay plenty of fertilizer and cuts and bales at the right time.

"I have a good hay-baler man — all I do is tell him when to cut, and he does the rest," Cooper said. Cooper is on the fifth cutting of this year's hay, and he usually cuts about every 28 days. He gets about six good cuttings each year from his fields.

"Good hay depends on the weather. Alfalfa doesn't like it too hot - this has been a great year for growing hay," Cooper said.Growing alfalfa hay has been a solid business for local hay farmers this year, with prices for medium grade alfalfa hovering around $230 a ton. Diesel prices, water shortages and growers cutting back on hay fields have resulted in a strong demand for hay, especially from dairies.

Both Cooper and Oliveira are serious about their hay growing, and Oliveira is already planning for her future in agriculture:"I either want to be a veterinarian or a dairy nutritionist."