Despite hefty hay demand and high prices, hay acres aren’t likely to increase much this coming planting season. That’s what commercial growers and industry folk from around the country predict.

Hay acreage has been on a gradual descent for the past decade. National Ag Statistics Service numbers have shown a decline of all-hay harvested acreage – from nearly 64 million in 2002 to an estimated 57.6 million this year.

The capricious weather of the past few years, as well as high-value commodity crops snaring hay land, have reduced the hay supply while raising prices to record levels.

In the past, that would have led to a surge in alfalfa- or grass-seeded acres. But it’s not too likely, said Barb Kinnan, executive director of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association, as she handed out flyers at N.A.M.A.’s booth at World Dairy Expo in October.

“Hay prices aren’t going to bring new people into the hay business,” she said. “The guys who already are in the hay business, they’ve got some money in their pockets and maybe they will plant a few more acres.

“But our weather is not the same. It never has been easy to make good hay, but it’s definitely been more of a struggle. Nebraska growers used to bale at night so they could get some leaf retention. I can’t tell you the last person I talked to who’s baled at night. They’re waiting for the humidity to get down.”

Also at the expo, Dave Hinman rested in the Wyoming Business Council tent after accepting the top commercial hay prize at the World Forage Analysis Superbowl (see Superbowl Champ Has Environmental Edge). He and his wife, Teri, grow 500 acres of alfalfa plus corn, malt barley and edible beans near Wheatland, WY. They also manage a 250-cow commercial beef herd and plan to increase hay land by about 100 acres next spring.

“I talked with several who raise hay, and they don’t have a lot of acres, but they’re looking at increasing them,” he said.

“Others are plowing out hay and going to corn. A lot of the old hay stands had been plowed out last year, but maybe there were a few left to go out.”

Gary Freeburg, Gayville, SD, usually harvests nearly 3,000 acres of forages with the help of his wife, Amy, and sons Jory and John. But wet weather kept them from seeding two-thirds of that acreage last spring.

“So we are going to plant at least 2,000 acres of new forages. I’m talking about new alfalfa, new alfalfa-grass mixes,” said Freeburg. I talked with him at the National Hay Association exhibit, just after he handled a query from a Swedish gentleman looking to import hay into his country.

Export interest has been a lot higher, he, Kinnan and others mentioned. But the supply just isn’t there for the organizations and growers to get excited (see Supply Shortfall Dims Hay Export Prospects).

Freeburg knows of several commercial growers who plan to seed more hay acres, he said.

“Hay is king; it will come back. We’re dealing with world markets. We’re not just talking about whether Ohio has a drought. We’re talking about what’s going on in China and Russia. What happens if Brazil has a bumper corn crop? I think it will change things in a big hurry.”

Having a short hay supply has been agonizing for Kinnan’s N.A.M.A. growers, she said. How does one set a fair hay price for long-standing customers when potential new clients are willing to pay higher prices?

Freeburg and Hinman have dealt with the same dilemma.

“We’re taking care of those who have put food on our tables – our return customers,” Freeburg said.

Hinman gave his Iowa Amish dairy-goat customers, as well as local clients, a bit of a price break.

“Last year I sold hay, third cutting, for $130/ton and this year it’s $225. I could get $250 or $260 for this hay. But I said $225/ton is still good money for me, and I’ll send you the best-quality hay I’ve got. We had 50 semi loads booked.”

He’s holding back 100-150 tons as insurance against a hard winter, and knows others are doing the same thing.

“If I don’t need it for my cows, it’ll go to market.”

Let’s hope for a mild winter – and additional incentives for growers to seed more hay acres.