An unusually harsh winter in the southeastern U.S. has forced livestock producers in the region to feed up more hay than usual. But industry observers say large supplies resulting from strong production last year will likely keep pressure off prices in the months to come.

In Mississippi, where numerous cold-temperature records have been broken so far this winter, livestock producers face an extended hay-feeding season. So reports Rocky Lemus, Extension forage specialist with Mississippi State University (MSU).

“The productivity of winter annuals has been diminished in a lot of places. Producers who planted annual ryegrass into sod will see minimal production out of those pastures. We’ve also seen freeze damage on oats and some of the annual clovers.”

The growth of perennial forages, come spring, may also be affected by this winter’s cold. “Right now a lot of the fescue is looking yellow. Ordinarily, at this time of year, tall fescue fields are lush and green,” says Lemus.

“We could also see a little delay on bermudagrass greening up, especially in the northern and central parts of the state. We could see quite a bit of winterkill damage on bermudagrass as well, especially in areas where there was light disking for planting annual ryegrass.”

Overall, winter-grazing potential has been lessened by 50%, and Lemus expects spring grazing to start four weeks later than normal in many parts of the state.

Even so, hay prices are likely to remain fairly steady in the months ahead, he says. “We had a very good production year in 2013. So there’s a pretty good reserve in the state.”

There haven’t been any “hay-for-sale” postings on MSU’s Mississippi Hay Directory since November, he notes. “That tells me that people are holding back on selling because they’re thinking that the bermudagrass crop might be delayed in coming on. They don’t want to get caught short like they did last year.”

Currently, 800- to 850-lb, 4 x 5’ round bales of grass hay bring an average of $25-35 each. Small squares of grass hay, at 55-65 lbs, sell for $4.50-6/bale.

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Neighboring Alabama is also lacking in winter-annual grass production.

“It’s been an extremely cold, wet winter, and we’ve had freezes farther south than we normally do,” says Nate Jaeger, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation Hay and Forage Crops Division. “Livestock farmers haven’t been able to get the winter grazing they ordinarily would. As a result, they’re having to feed more hay.”

How that’s likely to impact hay prices in the state as spring comes on is anybody’s guess, he says. While there appears to be plenty of lower-quality hay available, horse owners and others looking for better quality may find the supply tightening in the months ahead.

“If you’re just looking for roughage to get cows through the winter, there’s plenty of that around. You’re going to have to look harder to find the good-quality hay.”

The wide discrepancy in quality makes it especially important for buyers to have hay tested this year, adds Jaeger. “A test will cost you somewhere around $10-15. That’s pretty cheap when you consider that cattle prices are at record levels.”

According to the USDA-Alabama Department of Agriculture Alabama Weekly Hay Report, as of Feb. 20, premium-quality bermudagrass was selling for $113/ton packaged in round bales and $180-260/ton in small squares.

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