The lack of hay across the U.S. can in part be blamed on too little rain – or too much – as well as extreme hot or cool temperatures this growing season. But the loss of hay acreage to more lucrative crops has also hurt supply and spurred demand.
Hay & Forage Grower checked with growers and forage experts in dramatically affected areas, asking where hay prices, demand and supply were and where they think they’re going. Prices were gathered in mid- and late July.
The search is already on by dairies, beef producers, horse owners and other hay feeders in the Southern Plains to lock up whatever supplies they can find before the fall-winter feeding season. A severe, season-long drought has crimped regional forage production on an unprecedented scale.
“It’s gotten to the point where I almost don’t want to answer the phone anymore,” says Ross Kinney. He grows bermudagrass hay, primarily for the horse market, on two farms – one irrigated, the other dryland – near Kilgore in northeastern Texas.
Most years, Kinney cuts his dryland acres every 28 days starting in mid-May. This year, he took a cutting on May 28 and hasn’t been back on fields. Production on his irrigated ground has fared little better. While he’s been running his irrigation gun almost non-stop since late May, production has only been 65-70% of normal.
According to USDA, hay production throughout Texas was running one-third to half of normal through mid-July.
“People know we irrigate, so they think we might have hay for sale,” says Kinney, who has fielded inquiries from as far away as Houston. “But what we have been able to produce is reserved for our long-time customers. I’ve even had to tell some of them that, if they can find hay somewhere else, they should probably buy it.”
Hay sellers throughout the Southern Plains told similar stories with increasing frequency as summer progressed. In Oklahoma, many alfalfa growers turned off irrigation pivots for the season in mid-July rather than continue fighting triple-digit temperatures and high winds. In-state hay-for-sale listings on a state-run, online hay directory dropped sharply – from more than 200 to around 50 – during the first two weeks of July.
As of early July, large quantities of hay were already moving into Kansas’ drought-impacted areas from mostly unaffected northern-most counties, and from Nebraska and the Dakotas, notes Steve Hessman, USDA Market News reporter in Dodge City. “It’s the earliest we’ve ever seen this kind of movement.”
Steadily rising hay prices are the key factor, he says. Supreme-quality dairy alfalfa in southwestern Kansas was selling for $200-250/ton, nearly double the price of a year earlier. Stock cow alfalfa topped the $200/ton mark, up from $100-125/ton last summer. Even grinding-quality alfalfa, selling for $95-110/ton a year ago, was bringing $200/ton.
“The higher prices are helping growers in areas of the country where there is a fair amount of hay to cover their transportation costs,” he says.
Still, Hessman wonders just how much livestock producers will be willing or able to pay for hay later in the year.
“We’ve been hearing about growers getting inquiries from Texas dairies looking for hay. But a lot of those dairies are quite a ways south. By the time you get hay delivered there, you’re talking about a price of $300/ton or more. At that point, a dairy producer really has to ask whether it’s worth it to buy that hay and lose money. For some, selling cows might be a better alternative. Some may be forced to liquidate or cut back on cow numbers.”
Also caught in drought, many Georgia producers have been feeding bermudagrass and bahiagrass hay the past month or two – when they should be making it, says Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage specialist. He estimates that production is down to half of what’s normal for this time of year and it doesn’t help that state hay acreage is down by 12%.
Grass hay is temporarily holding at around $120/ton for beef cattle. High-quality grass hay begins at $160-180/ton and premium alfalfa is above $275/ton.
In late July, Hancock reports, sporadic showers perked up pastures. But conditions are still rated poor or very poor on about half the state’s grazing ground.
“It’s getting very hard to find hay. Most of these producers would say that, if it started raining right now, they would have enough hay to get through the winter. However, the forecast is not good. We’re going to have a really tough time being able to feed all the mouths this winter.”
Beef cattle sales are up, reflecting the most cost-effective option open to producers: culling. Overgrazed, drought-stressed pastures are infested with grubs and beetles that, in cases, kill bermudagrass stands.
“I never thought I would have a situation where we could kill common bermudagrass. But we have that this year,” he says.
The other forage mainstay, corn silage, is doing “fairly well” on irrigated acres, but dryland corn “has frequently been a failure. We have a very large proportion of our dryland corn that never even made it waist-high, much less make an ear. So we have a lot of drought-stressed corn that’s being salvaged as some sort of stored forage.”