Virginia hay producers stored more hay from the first cutting early this summer than they harvested all last season, state agricultural officials say.

According to Harlan White, forage agronomist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute at Blacksburg, hay production for the rest of the year promises to be normal despite the heat wave that has hung over the Washington area for several weeks.

That means that hay farmers in the state will harvest at least three cuttings of alfalfa hay, two of grass hay and two of clover hay, according to Loudoun County hay farmer and distributor Pat Cassidy. Last year, hay production was down 60 percent and many of the area's drought-stricken cattle farmers and horse owners were forced to buy hay from out-of-state growers. The auctions, held at the request of Loudoun County agriculture development officer Helene Lepkowski, continued through the winter, Cassidy said.

Adequate rainfall this spring and early summer also meant that pastures were good for the county's more than 44,000 head of cattle and 8,000 horses. Cattle farmers and horse owners were able to store hay for use next winter instead of dipping into supplies during the summer, as they did last year.

"I don't even want to think about the money we lost because of the drought last year," said Bill Thomas, who along with his father Owen raises 140 head of registered black Angus on his 400-acre farm near Round Hill.

In a good year, the Thomases said they can expect to bail 200 tons of hay. Last summer, they were forced to buy at least $3,000 worth to keep their herd going, they said.

When hay is plentiful, as it is expected to be this year, producers can expect to get $80 a ton for cattle hay and up to $180 for the higher quality horse hay. Some producers took advantage of the drought in the southeast and northeast last year by charging as much as $200 a ton for the cheaper cattle hay.

The average horse eats three to four tons of hay a year, the average dairy cow consumes 7 1/2 tons and the average beef cattle can chomp up to 4 1/4 tons a year if pasture is bad, 1.4 tons if it is good, Loudoun extension office spokeswoman Liz Kirchener said. Since most cattle farmers grow their own hay, horse owners are more dependent on a good local crop, extension agent William Harrison said. When hay must be hauled from out of state, transportation costs can add as much as $20 to the price of a ton, he said.

Several Loudoun County farmers said they were hesitant to complain about the abundant rains this spring and early summer because of last year's dry season, but, some admitted, it was tricky getting the first cutting into the barn on time. Some of them didn't make it. If hay is past maturity when cut, protein and quality are lost, they said.

"The rain has been spotty in the state, though," White said. "Intermittent showers do you good only if you're under one of them."

Ironically, the weather that is producing a healthy hay crop is also responsible for a high percentage of insect problems, White said. The alfalfa weevil and the potato leaf hopper, both of which are devastating to alfalfa, are thriving this year. Because heavy spring spraying also kills beneficial insects like honeybees, White's advice to farmers is to wait and be sure there is a heavy infestation, use less-toxic insecticide and spray less often.

Joseph Hottel, who owns Egypt Farms near Purcellville and is growing more than 400 acres of hay this year, said his harvest has been good despite the insect problem. But Hottel added that hay farming is very difficult, especially compared with the grain growing he used to do.

His advice to anyone considering it? "Be prepared to work hard. I know I do."