Pennsylvania growers and dairy producers are feeling the heat – literally – when it comes to low hay supply and high prices, says Paul Craig, Dauphin County Extension agent.

“We’re dry, and it couldn’t have hit us at a worse time,” he says. First and second hay cuttings were good, but 100° July temperatures hampered third cutting and could lead to a less-than-desirable fourth.

“Widespread, we’re thankful for what we have right now, but we’re on the short side and have guys going to hay auctions out of state – Virginia and North Carolina – already looking for forage. We’re seeing prices unheard-of for this time of year. Hay that a year ago was $190/ton is now around $275/ton.”

There’s also competition for lower-quality hay. “Gas companies in western and northern Pennsylvania are gobbling up mulch hay to use to reseed gas lines, well sites and other disturbed areas, and it’s driving up the price of that hay.”

Mulch hay, usually relegated to mushroom growers, last year brought $60-90/ton. It sells for $125/ton now, Craig says.

“We will see our guys very aggressively going after that fall harvest. Whether it’s the fifth cutting or the fourth, they will be trying to maximize the amount of forage that they can put up.”

At the same time, the heat wave is shriveling corn-silage yields.

“We’ve got corn tasseling. We’ve got corn 12” tall to knee-high right now (in mid-July) from late plantings. By the 15th of August, guys are probably going to be chopping corn silage, partly because of the need to feed and partly because it’s maturing faster because of the heat and drought.

“Yet we could get showers next week and be over the hump,” Craig adds.

He’s advising growers to plant oats after chopping corn silage this year.

“Some guys like to plant a winter grain like rye or triticale or barley” to provide winter cover and forage the next spring. “But you can’t plant triticale or rye or wheat because it’s too early. About the only thing you could plant would be oats. Late-summer plantings of oats can make excellent oatlage harvested 70 days post planting. Plant at 3 bu/acre and topdress with 40 units of N or manure.”

Central California
Central California dairy producers are paying $250 to up to $300/ton for supreme alfalfa hay – when they can find it – and may not have an adequate corn-silage backup, suggests Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis Extension forage specialist.

Growing-degree days were “less than normal” during a cool, wet spring and early summer, but were somewhat normal in July. The forage expert estimates that production could be down as much as a ton per acre for the year.

But alfalfa hay is scarce more because of acreage competition from other crops, such as cotton, tomatoes, sunflowers, and wheat planted last fall, he says. Hay exports have picked up, too.

“We had some new plantings of alfalfa this spring, but not really enough to change the supply-and-demand situation. It will remain to be seen this fall whether we’ll have an increase in acreage or how big that increase will be. Normally, with record-high prices for alfalfa hay, you would see an expansion of acreage, but it’s uncertain because of the competing-crop issue.”

Although milk prices are up, dairy producers are having a hard time finding dairy-quality hay. Some are adding straw to dry-cow rations to stretch supplies.

“Also, hay growers have responded to the way the markets have changed. With the price of even lower-quality alfalfa hays being so good, a lot of growers are saying, ‘I’m going to go for yield; I’m not going for quality.’ And the dairies are going to have to accept a little lower quality.”

At this point it’s questionable how much total corn silage will be available, Putnam says.

Although corn acres are up in California, including silage, growers could shift to grain production. That’s if corn-grain prices are high at summer’s end or they get nervous about a dairy’s ability to pay. It will depend upon the relative price. Growers have had a hard time collecting corn silage payments from financially strapped dairies the past few years and have shifted acreage, the forage specialist says.

Northern California
Dick Schader raises 5,000 acres of irrigated alfalfa outside Macdoel in northern California, near the Oregon border. He figures the cool weather will take half a cutting from the usual three he gets.

“It’s 15-20° below normal here on the West Coast,” he says. “Instead of being 90°, it’s 70°. Instead of being 55° at night, it’s 45° or 40°. I wish the weather would cooperate. We won’t get these growing-degree days back.”

Siskiyou County farm advisor Steve Orloff agrees. “Yields are down because of the bizarre weather we’ve had and supplies overall are down because acreage hasn’t kept up with the demand.”

High-end hay, delivered, goes for $260-270/ton, Schader says. “But that’s with a $40 freight bill. California dairies get a lot of hay out of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, but last winter a lot of the hay got used up. The imports into California are a lot less than they were a year ago because the carryover hay is just not there.”

Schader doesn’t like the price spikes.“When hay gets this high, dairymen just compromise and feed less hay. Instead of feeding 12 lbs a day, they may feed 6 lbs. In reality, you’re losing the customer base or tonnage base that may or may not come back when things turn.”

Some dairies no longer feed any hay, he adds. “They just give them a lot of corn silage and other commodities, a lot more almond hulls.”

The weather has been more moderate in Idaho, says Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho Extension forage specialist. Even so, a cool spring yielded a very poor first cutting, and alfalfa acreage decreased from 1.2 million to 1.02 million. Hay production will decline by 20-25%, he predicts.

Premium and supreme hays are at $225/ton, he adds, and a lot is moving despite being $100/ton more than has been normal.

“Dairymen are concerned about having an adequate supply. I don’t think it’s a panic mode, but they are trying to line up and purchase what they are going to need.

“One thing that might mitigate it a little bit – I think our corn grain acres are up but a lot of the corn is very immature. So there could be some shift to corn silage to help make up that (forage) gap.”

Also, native range and pasture lands produced “abundant” forage in July, so beef producers won’t be looking for forage, Shewmaker surmises.