Out in Hamilton, Curtis Laycock says it's been a dry year, a good year for growing wheat.

But these days, Laycock and other Loudoun County farmers are as much interested in the straw left over from the wheat harvest as they are in the grain itself.

"I really count on my straw," said Laycock, who farms 18 acres of wheat on his 400-acre cattle farm. "That's a cash crop for me. I've seen times that the straw was a lot more valuable crop than the wheat."

More Loudoun farmers are growing wheat to supply the demand by the county's $21 million horse industry for bedding straw.

"Straw is a million-dollar crop here," said Gary Hornbaker, the county's agricultural extension agent. "It's a commodity because of our location."

According to estimates, Loudoun farmers planted 15,000 acres of wheat in 1990, up from last year's 10,500 acres. And while the wheat itself brings in about $1.5 million for its growers, its byproduct, straw, will net farmers $1 million this year.

"The demand for the straw will be every bit as great per acre as the demand for the wheat this year," said Hornbaker.

Generally, Loudoun farmers use their grain to feed their livestock, send it to Baltimore for export, or sell it for milling to be used in baking bread.

The process works like this: The wheat is planted in late September or early October, usually after the fall's first major frost. It is harvested during the first weeks of July by a combine machine that separates the grain from the stalk. The combine shoots the stalk, which is now straw, out the back of the machine and leaves it on the field being harvested.

"Don't plan anything for the Fourth of July, because we'll be in the wheat," said Laycock, smiling. "It happens every year."

Combines are expensive, running about $100,000 for a new machine, so most farmers rent a combine for the yearly harvest.

To gather the straw, workers follow the combine down the rows of wheat, pulling the spent stalks together into bales. In Laycock's case, the bales are left in the fields for a horse breeder to come pick up.

The going rate for straw from the field is $1 a bale, and an acre produces about 100 bales. According to Hornbaker, wheat is sold at about $120 a ton, depending on market fluctuations. By comparison, straw brings about $65 a ton.

The convenience of having the breeders take the straw straight from the fields is another incentive for the farmers.

"Cows can't eat straw, and this way I get rid of it," Laycock said.

Any straw left over from the sale to horse breeders is stored away, and some of it is used for bedding Laycock's cattle during the winter.

Because of the high cost of production, corn, traditionally an important crop in the county, is declining in popularity here compared with the cheaper wheat crops. This year, farmers planted 16,500 acres of corn.

"It costs an awful lot of money to grow corn, and small grain costs less, so more and more farmers are saying they should grow more wheat," Hornbaker said. Laycock estimated that an acre of corn costs about $150 to grow, while wheat "costs less than half that."

William Edwin Muncaster, another Loudoun farmer, who raises 75 to 100 acres of wheat a year, agreed that corn is on a decline. "I don't think they'll ever raise as much corn in the area as they once did," he said. "There are fewer farmers, for one thing."

Hornbaker said that agricultural specialists from Virginia Tech who used to test different varieties of corn in Loudoun are now testing 42 types of wheat to see which ones stand the best chance of growing in the county's soil, another indication of wheat's increasing role.

"We used to pretty much plant wheat and forget about it," Muncaster said, but now, he said, Loudoun is paying more scientific, specialized attention to wheat crops.

"That's how important Virginia thinks this crop is," Hornbaker said.

Despite the fact that more development and people are coming to Loudoun, particularly in the eastern end, agriculture, at $50 million a year, remains the county's second biggest industry after tourism. Loudoun ranks in the top 15 counties in Virginia in agricultural production.

Horse farming ranks first in the county in profit and production, followed by beef cattle, dairy farming, corn, hay and wheat, according to Hornbaker.