A persistent band of dry weather stretching from Wisconsin to Texas and east into Ohio has hay analysts apprehensive.
“I'm concerned about where hay prices will go,” says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage agronomist.
Not only has drought cut overall production in Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois and portions of surrounding states, one of the roughest winters in memory took out about 3 million acres of alfalfa across the Midwest, Undersander notes.
Add quality problems in California, Manitoba and the Pacific Northwest, and Undersander says conditions point to a hay shortage. One thing that could help soften the shortage is that corn is so fried in some areas that more fields will go into silage.
Undersander expects emergency demand to kick in sometime between September and November. Demand will be just as heavy from the equine industry as from the dairy sector, and supplies will be equally as short, he says.
“The heart of the Midwest alfalfa belt is dry to severely dry,” reports Dave Petritz, Purdue University extension economist. Petritz says USDA's Aug. 12 Crop Production report, the first hay production estimate for the year, will give an indication of where markets are heading.
“Hay buyers need to be very concerned at this point,” he adds. “They don't need to rush out and buy anything that looks like a bale of hay, but they need to be attentive.”
If the report shows a significant drop in production, growers will want to store as much hay as they can until they get a better indication of where the market is headed, Petritz says. Like Undersander, he expects prices to rally this fall if overall production is as short as many expect.
Hay supplies in Missouri as of midsummer were about 40-50% of normal, reports Pat Guinan, state climatologist with the University of Missouri's Commercial Agriculture Program.
“Pastures are burned up as well. They've stopped growing,” Guinan says.
With each passing day, hopes for a recovery are fading. “We're pretty well entrenched in Missouri,” Guinan notes. “It's going to take awhile to shake this drought.”
Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist at Champaign, agrees. “We're at the time of year when demand on soil moisture is so great that, even if we have normal rainfall, it will be tough to make headway,” says Angel. “My guess is it will be fall or winter before we get a breather.”
In many cases, Illinois' second alfalfa cutting was about one-third of normal and third cutting was shaping up to be even worse, says Jerry Millburg, USDA hay reporter in Springfield. As of late July, small square bales, most headed for the horse market, had already moved $10/ton higher.
The forage situation is just as worrisome in parts of Texas. Some Texas bermudagrass growers took off about half the normal volume. According to some reports, drought could cut Texas' corn silage production in half and some sorghum silage won't even get cut.
Some of the surplus alfalfa states, such as Kansas, still have time to produce premium-quality alfalfa, but shipping it out of the state will be pricey.
“Dairy hay is short across the country,” says Steve Hessman, an analyst with USDA and the Kansas Department of Agriculture in Dodge City. Due to the rapid rise in freight rates, some hay that was supposed to ship east has stayed in Kansas.
“Some buyers are not getting the hay they normally would,” he adds.