'Hay may be the Rodney Dangerfield of U.S. crops," says Thomas Morgan of Morgan Consulting Group, based out of Paola, KS.

Although hay is our third most valuable crop, its economic impact is often ignored, Morgan says.

But foreign buyers are giving U.S. hay more attention - and more business - every year.

"The value of U.S. hay exports has increased eight-fold since 1985, while the quantity has increased nearly seven-fold," reports Morgan.

Demand for hay in developing countries is correlating with demand for more animal proteins, he adds.

"Although these countries have imported more beef, pork, chicken and turkey, they have chosen to produce their own fresh milk."

The strong U.S. economy also has helped boost overseas hay sales.

"The rapid growth of hay exports is a byproduct of international trade and the U.S.'s unique comparative advantage in forages," Morgan says.

Mexico may be the hay export market to watch, says Bill Ford, area extension agent for Washington State University at Pasco.

Right now, Pacific Rim countries, particularly Japan, Taiwan and Korea, are the dominant buyers. They're a big market for Western U.S. hay growers, but potential for Mexican and possibly European imports may open export sales to growers across the country.

"We get calls from growers in Colorado who are interested in export sales through the West Coast," Ford says.

"That's a little too far from Washington to be economical. At some point, transportation starts to kill any price advantage a grower might receive. But, as the Mexican market continues to grow, there will be potential for those producers to sell there."