Hay buyers and sellers in California came within a whisker of losing one of the few tools they have for tracking hay prices in the state as the new year started. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) announced in mid-December that it would discontinue the California Weekly Hay Report as of Dec. 30. Last week, though, AMS officials announced they were reversing course and will continue publishing the report for the time being.

Staffing issues were behind AMS’ original decision to shelve the report, says Michael Jarvis, public affairs director for AMS.

“We’ve been looking at the whole (USDA Market News) program to determine what’s best, what’s economical and what’s critical,” says Jarvis. AMS had also announced that it would discontinue several reports it issues for individual hay auctions in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. Those reports will also now continue. “Like everybody else, we have to look for ways to run a more-efficient operation.”

Comments from users played a major role in the AMS decision to keep the reports in place, says Jarvis. “We were getting a lot of feedback from people saying ‘We need to have this. It’s essential,’” notes Jarvis. “Now we’ll be stepping back, taking another look and doing an evaluation on where we can go from here.”

University of California Extension forage specialist Dan Putnam was surprised when he initially heard that AMS was going to discontinue the California report. “It seemed curious that USDA would eliminate the report here because we have a very dynamic hay marketplace,” says Putnam. “Sales of alfalfa here amount to well over $1 billion per year. And more hay is marketed in California than in any other state.

“A lot of our growers use the information in the report on a regular basis. It’s really the only public source of independent data on hay prices there is. For that reason alone, it’s pretty valuable.”

Philip Bowles, a Los Banos, CA, hay grower and president of the California Alfalfa and Forage Association, agrees with Putnam’s assessment. “The (report) is certainly a valuable service,” he says. “Unlike corn or soybeans, forages are not traded on a central market, where local basis is the major variable. Instead, even though it is a multi-billion-dollar industry, most forage transactions are small and local, with participants often shading the truth.USDA has a unique role in being a completely neutral third party, collecting and disseminating information they believe to be reliable.”

It’s that role that sets the AMS report apart from private-sector, price information resources like The Hoyt Report, Bowles says. “(Report author Seth Hoyt) does an excellent job in his market newsletter, but it is one that complements, not replaces, the USDA Market News, since (he) can both project prices and state his opinions.” (See Hoyt's work in Western Hay Prices To Soften.)

Bowles also thinks people making use of the hay report may eventually have to pay a fee to ensure the service continues. “Proper market intelligence is vital for any producer or consumer of forage. If the growers and consumers of forage will not pay for market intelligence, who will? Thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of dollars a year can be at stake for a grower. A hundred bucks a year or so does not seem very onerous ... ”

Should users pay fees for services such as the Market News hay reports that USDA and state ag departments publish in more than two dozen states? Send your comments on this topic to rmooney234@gmail.com.