Andy Dobson's one of the lucky ones. His first alfalfa cutting only got rained on once, and he baled it as No. 2 dairy hay.
“I feel very fortunate for the way my first cutting turned out,” says Dobson, a Mud Lake, ID, commercial hay grower. “It still tested fairly well — in an RFV range of 160-173 — because I cut it early enough and it was pretty green when it got rained on. But many growers waited another 10 days and their hay got rained on several times.”
Dobson says that over 90% of first-cutting hay got rained on in his area and in most of the country. In much of the Northwest, frequent light rains were just enough to lower hay quality, but not necessarily enough to replenish the soil or irrigation supplies.
“We're having a terrible drought, but we have more rained-on hay this year than we've ever had,” says a long-time Utah hay dealer. “The two just don't go together, but that's what's happening.”
He predicts that dairy-quality hay will be difficult to find.
“I know there are going to be a lot of complaints from dairy producers about the quality of hay they're buying, no matter what state it comes from,” says the dealer. “I'm telling my customers, ‘do not anticipate the same quality, but anticipate higher prices.’”
Barb Kinnan, marketing director for the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (NAMA), weighs in: “It seems like there's never enough top-quality hay to go around, but I think it will be worse this year.”
Kinnan says she's getting a record number of calls from Minnesota and Wisconsin dairy producers. She attributes some of the increased interest to NAMA's new national advertising campaign. But she also knows that hay growers in those states weren't able to get much harvested without rain damage — not even for haylage in some cases.
Dobson and Kinnan are telling dairy producers to check their hay inventories and start shopping now for their hay needs. “Lock in supplies as soon as possible,” recommends Kinnan.
Horse owners might be scrambling, too, says Les Vough, University of Maryland extension forage specialist. “In some cases, they're going to have to settle for lower-quality hay,” he says.
Vough is also concerned about alfalfa stand damage in his state.
“It was so wet in some areas during May and June that producers tore up a lot of fields trying to get first-cutting haylage harvested. Even if those stands were not destroyed, alfalfa in the wheel tracks was yellow for several weeks and slow to recover due to soil compaction.”
Water-logged stands are the last thing growers in New Mexico have to worry about, reports Doug Whitney, president of the New Mexico Hay Association.
“The state is still suffering the consequences of an on-going three-year drought,” says Whitney, a commercial hay grower and custom harvester. “In areas where growers rely on surface water for irrigation, rationing continues.”
The Elephant Butte Reservoir, which holds water for many south-central New Mexico growers, is only at 19% of its normal capacity, Whitney reports.
“Farmers have been drilling wells in an attempt to keep their crops alive, but little relief is in sight. Water levels upstream in the Rio Grande are at bare minimums, so there's no reserve to fall back on.”
Before April, the 16-month rainfall total in his area — the southeastern corner of New Mexico — was only 2”.
“Growers here were fortunate to get 6” of rain this spring, which gave the basins some much-needed relief,” says Whitney. “That gave us a leg up on a very bad situation.”