This winter's unseasonably warm weather in much of the country has been a late Christmas gift for dairy and beef producers who buy hay. But not for commercial hay growers with plenty of product to sell.

For Dan Miller of Spring Valley, MN, it's been both a blessing and a curse.

“The dry matter intake of my beef herd and dairy heifers decreased in January. They just aren't eating as much,” says Miller. “While the warmer temperatures were nice for the cattle end of my business, they depressed my hay sales.”

Miller runs a cow-calf herd, grows and sells hay and custom raises Holstein heifers. While he harvests alfalfa and reed canarygrass for his own use, he also markets hay to beef, dairy and horse owners in his home state, plus Iowa and Wisconsin.

“My hay prices have softened about 5% since the end of December,” he says. “Prices have dipped more for average-quality hay than premium-quality.”

“It was the warmest January on record here in Indiana,” reports Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist. “If last December's cold weather had continued into the new year, I think we would be looking at much higher prices because hay acreage fell last year and drought cut yields in much of the country.”

“Prices rose dramatically last fall because the supply was down and buyers were anticipating an average need for hay,” says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist. “But now that we have less than an average need, prices are falling.

“Even if the weather turns cold, it's not likely to have a big effect at this point. A cold snap during late February or March isn't likely to last more than a week or two.”

While hay production was down significantly throughout much of the Midwest and East last year, Undersander says livestock producers in those regions have ample supplies of corn silage to help make up the difference.

“Corn and soybeans are cheap right now, too,” adds Petritz. “That's helping keep ration costs down.”

One group of hay buyers that isn't seeing any price relief is horse owners, says Undersander.

“Prices for that sector are significantly higher,” he says. “Not only are horse owners confined to feeding just hay, but they're looking for small bales, so there's a smaller group of hay producers to buy from.”

In the West, supplies of dairy-quality hay are tight, says Jack Getz, Moses Lake, WA.

A cool spring, followed by extremely hot weather, impeded production in many areas, most notably California, according to Getz, who heads USDA's Market News for Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California.

“Insect pressure in California was higher-than-normal, too,” he says.

According to USDA figures, alfalfa production was down 15% in Oregon, 6% in California and 3% in Washington. Idaho saw a 1% increase.

“Many dairy producers in this region have already procured the hay they need, which is good,” says Getz, who adds that prices for premium-quality hay have risen only modestly since last fall. “There is still some hay in the stack not committed from the 2005 crop, but most of that is just fair-quality hay suitable for dry cows.”

USDA's January Crop Production report revealed that growers harvested 151 million tons of hay from 61.6 million acres in 2005. In 2004, 157 million tons were harvested from 61.9 million acres.

Harvested hay acreage decreased across the southern Great Plains and the Southeast, with the exception of Florida and Mississippi. Large acreage declines occurred in Missouri, Kansas and Texas, down 400,000, 350,000 and 300,000 acres, respectively.

Alfalfa was harvested from 22.4 million acres, compared with 21.7 million the previous year. Yields averaged 3.38 tons/acre, down 0.10 ton from the previous year's average.

“I was surprised when I got the final numbers to see as many states as I did with fairly significant declines in alfalfa production,” says Purdue's Petritz.

For example, alfalfa production was down 19% in Illinois last year, 10% in Indiana, 11% in Kansas, 28% in New York, 12% in Pennsylvania and 11% in Wisconsin.

“Here in Wisconsin, we had one of our driest years on record,” says Undersander. “Basically, west of the Mississippi River the hay crop was in good shape. East of the river it was too dry.”

“On the other side of the coin, alfalfa production increases in some states were quite dramatic,” says Petritz. “It jumped nearly 70% in North Dakota.”

Production increased 11% in Arizona, 17% in Colorado, 20% in Montana and 9% in South Dakota.

Stocks of all hay stored on farms totaled 105 million tons on Dec. 1 last year, down 8% from the Dec. 1, 2004, figure. Dry weather in many states increased supplemental hay feeding and depleted stocks.

States with much lower Dec. 1, 2005, stocks included Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas. States with higher stocks included Arizona, California, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota and South Dakota.

USDA also reported that growers seeded 3.29 million acres of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures during 2005, 18% more than in 2004.