by Rick Mooney
Editor, eHay Weekly

As reported in last week’s eHay Weekly, USDA’s latest Crop Production report, released earlier this month, forecasts an increase in total U.S. hay production for 2010. But even with the near bumper crop nationwide, supplies could be tight in some parts of the country heading into the winter feeding season.

An extremely hot, dry growing season dramatically curbed hay production in parts of the Mid-Atlantic Region. Scott Baker, ag agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension in Bedford County, reports that hay production in his area is down “at least” 40% from average. “Overall, it’s been a pretty tough growing year.”

While overall production was limited, Baker says there seems to be some hay around. “We did have a pretty good year for production last year. A lot of people had some carryover.”

Rains in September and October could also take some pressure off demand. “The rain perked up pastures a little bit. The situation is definitely better than it was six weeks ago. If we continue to get mild weather this fall, it will help.”

Even so, he’s advising people who think they might need hay during the winter to start lining supplies up now. “You don’t want to wait to start looking until December or January when things could be in a crisis situation.”

Drought through much of the growing season also limited hay production in parts of Maryland and neighboring Pennsylvania, says Les Vough, University of Maryland forage specialist emeritus. But an early season wet spell may have a larger impact on overall supplies.

“In western Maryland, we had a lot of nuisance rain showers during first and second cuttings. By the time it got harvested, a lot of that hay was either overmature, rained on or both.”

Overall, Vough says, the state hay supply should be adequate to meet demand. “That’s for quantity. When it comes to quality, there’s a limited supply.”

Price trends at local auction sales reflect the supply situation, he adds. “Low-quality hay is very cheap, an indicator of an abundant supply at this time. High-quality hay is bringing a much higher price.”

His bottom-line message to would-be hay buyers: “If you’re a horse owner and need high-quality hay, you better be booking it now. Better yet, you probably should have already booked it.”

A hot, dry summer also severely crimped hay production in parts of East Texas, Arkansas and several other Southeastern states. “Hay is in very short supply,” says Aaron Low, Texas Agrilife Extension agent in Cherokee County. “We had an extended winter, and a lot of people had to feed up whatever hay they had. Then we went straight into drought. Along with that, grasshoppers and fall armyworms hit us very hard.”

The net result, says Low, is that many area cattle producers have opted to get out of the business. “A lot of people were just wiped out. We’ve definitely been seeing more herd liquidations recently.”

Cool and wet conditions on both ends of the growing season posed a different kind of challenge for growers in many Western states. Chep Gauntt, who grows alfalfa and timothy on 1,400 acres near Kennewick, WA, reports that first-crop yields of quality hay in the Columbia River Basin were down by 30%. “It was one of the most miserable first cuttings we’ve ever had,” says Gauntt, a former president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association.

The bad haymaking weather returned in late August and early September, cutting fourth-crop yields by another 30-50%. “There was a lot of black hay put up,” says Gauntt, who estimates that overall yields for 2010 will be down 10-20%. “We’ll likely go into the winter with less hay in Washington than we have in many years. And from what I’ve heard, it’s that way throughout the Western states.”

He adds that the anticipated shortfall of dairy-quality hay has already been pushing prices in the region slowly upward. “It’s been gradual so far. But when people see how little hay there really is, look out.”

This year’s battles with the weather, coupled with high corn and wheat prices, could lead many Western alfalfa growers to turn to alternative crops in 2011, he believes. “It’s a matter of risk,” says the grower, who expects to trim his hay plantings by half next year. “People have had reduced hay yields for the past two years, and the hay price is $140-170/ton. Field corn is bringing $180/ton, and you don’t have anywhere near the risk. If things stay like this, you’ll see a lot of hay growers jumping ship and planting other crops next spring.”