Commercial hay growers with some of last year's crop left to sell might be wise to call their contacts on the East Coast.

Hay supplies are down sharply in the New England and Middle Atlantic regions, and prices are very high in those states. Production, especially of alfalfa, was reduced by bad weather during the 1997 growing season.

Supplies are also down significantly in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

As of Dec. 1, total U.S. hay stocks were down 2% from the amount in storage on the same date in 1996. That was despite a small increase in the amount of hay produced.

Details on the 1997 hay crop and Dec. 1 hay stocks were part of USDA's January Crop Production Report.

USDA estimated 1997 hay production at 152 million tons, 2% more than in 1996. Harvested acres remained unchanged, while the average yield increased from 2.45 to 2.5 tons per acre. Texas moved to the No. 1 spot in total production, edging out California.

Alfalfa production totaled 79.2 million tons in 1997, a slight increase over the '96 total. Acreage harvested, estimated to be 23.7 million, was 3% less than in '96. The average alfalfa yield -- 3.35 tons per acre -- was about 3% higher than in 1996.

Most states saw yield increases. The most notable gain was in California, where the average alfalfa yield hit 7.2 tons per acre, a new record.

The production of "other hay," which is essentially all hay other than alfalfa, totaled 72.9 million tons, about 4% higher than the year-earlier figure. Acreage harvested and yield per acre both increased.

Many states had increases in production of "other hay." Production increased 111% in Arizona and 30% in Ohio. Continued strength in hay prices most likely caused growers to harvest fields and pastures planted to grasses and cover crops.

Dec. 1 hay stocks totaled 103 million tons, 2% less than the year-earlier figure. Stocks declined in 26 of the 48 states.

The declines were centered in Great Lakes states, the New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the Middle Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Other states showing declines included: Nebraska, North Dakota, California, Nevada and Oregon.

Increases had occurred in the Mountain and Southern states as well as in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

The reduction in stocks in the Northeast suggests hay prices will remain above normal.

Alfalfa hay prices have been relatively flat, with the monthly nationwide average ranging between $106 and $109 per ton during July through December. But these levels are about 10% above 1996 levels.

Livestock producers bought hay aggressively during harvest. Their early purchases kept prices high during the summer, erasing much of the typical seasonal rise in prices. Another price-tempering factor was mild weather during much of the fall. While not eliminating hay feeding, it did reduce needs.

U.S. average hay prices don't reflect regional price differences. Pennsylvania and Ohio, at $166 and $177 per ton, respectively, had the highest alfalfa hay prices in the nation. Aggressive purchasing of hay for shipment into the hay-deficit areas farther northeast provided price support. Some of the lowest prices were in the Dakotas.

Dairymen in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions will likely face higher hay prices in the weeks ahead. Severe weather, such as the recent blizzards and ice storms, will add to hay demand, fueling further price increases.

The winter price rise could be exacerbated by either a cold, late spring or prospects for a dry spring and summer.