Commercial hay growers' bottom lines should be healthier this year.

“Prices are running $10-30 per ton higher for hay than they were this time last year,” reports Jack Getz, head of USDA's Market News office in Moses Lake, WA. “Several circumstances have led to shorter supplies in the heavy hay-producing Western states.”

Supplies of high-quality hay are tighter throughout much of the Corn Belt and parts of the East, too, says Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist.

“If current weather conditions continue on the dry side, the hay market will pick up nationwide,” says Petritz. “We're going to see a stronger hay market than I had expected earlier in the growing season. Unfortunately, higher fuel, fertilizer and electricity costs will eat up some of the price increases in hay.”

The tightening of supplies is affecting prices more this year because hay stocks were low coming into the growing season, notes Petritz. USDA reported that May 1 stocks of all hay on farms totaled 21.1 million tons, down 27% from the previous year's stocks. Twenty-seven states — most west of the Mississippi River — had lower hay stocks. Ten states reported stocks at or below 50% of last year's levels.

“Supplies are tight in several states, including Montana, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, California, Washington and Oregon,” says Getz.

Several factors are responsible, he says. Chief among them:

  • Moisture is lacking throughout the region.

    “We haven't had much rainfall this summer and we didn't get much winter rain or snow, which has compounded the problem,” says Getz. “That has affected dryland production and the amount of water available in irrigation ditches to apply to alfalfa fields. I talked to one Idaho producer recently whose dryland production is only 20-30% of normal.”

  • Power buy-backs in the Pacific Northwest have taken thousands of alfalfa acres out of production (see page 16).

  • Alfalfa growers in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California have been unable to irrigate their fields (see page 14).

“While our supplies are tighter, some hay produced in April, May and June didn't test as high as expected due to some warmer-than-normal weather, primarily in California and Nevada,” adds Getz. “The plants matured too quickly, throwing total digestible nutrient figures a few points off. Some dairy producers are scrambling to find high-testing hay.”

In the Corn Belt and farther east, great variabilities in the weather have made harvesting high-quality hay extra difficult, says Purdue's Petritz.

“Tremendous amounts of rain in early June in much of the Corn Belt totally screwed up most of the first cutting,” says Petritz. “Either producers couldn't get their hay cut or if they had it down, they couldn't get it harvested.

“Now we've gone from that very wet period to very dry conditions. I have a farm in northern Illinois and it received very little precipitation during July.”

Growers in Pennsylvania, New York and the Southeast have had a lot of rain this summer, he adds.

“Just like in the Midwest, the weather has greatly reduced their ability to harvest high-quality hay. On the bright side, there should be abundant pasture supplies.”