Short water supplies, both irrigation water and rainfall, have put the brakes on hay production in many parts of Montana.

“The tonnage is way lower,” says James Ward, reporter for USDA’s Market News in Billings. “Many growers are reporting that yields on first crop are a quarter to half of what they were last year.”

As a result, hay prices have been trending “sharply higher” in recent weeks, he says. Alfalfa-grass (beef-cow) hay in round bales is selling for $140-155/ton at the farm, while straight alfalfa with an RFV of 160 or better is bringing $175-185. “Across the board, prices are fully $20/ton higher than they were a year ago,” says Ward.

But even with the higher prices, many growers are passing up bids from potential buyers. “A lot of folks are not in any kind of hurry to market any hay. Many are putting it in the stack and waiting to see what happens with prices as the growing season develops. The general feeling is that prices are going to continue going up.”

While there’s been strong demand from areas outside of Montana, mostly from dairy states to the east, Ward says a majority of growers he’s talked to would prefer to sell closer to home. That may have more to do with state loyalty than pure economics. “(Hay growers) know that the cow people here have to have hay. They want to support their own state first.”

To contact Ward, call 406-370-6367 or email jamesm.ward@ams.usda.gov.