As the 2013 growing season wraps up in most parts of the country, hay growers are fine-tuning their marketing and pricing plans for winter.

A spot check with hay auction owners and other market observers around the country this past week reveals there’s enough low- to medium-quality hay in most areas to put a drag on prices. Supplies of high-quality hay, however, are likely to be stretched thin; its prices should remain strong or even strengthen in the weeks and months ahead.

That’s definitely the case in the Upper Midwest. In Michigan, a plentiful amount of medium-quality alfalfa – in the 120-140 relative feed value (RFV) range – has prices trending downward. “Many are pricing in the range of $160-180/ton,” reports Phil Kaatz, area field crops specialist with Michigan State University Extension.

High-quality alfalfa (RFV of 150 or above) is much tougher to come by. “There isn’t as much available this year as there has been in the past,” he says. “You’re probably looking at around $200/ton and up, but it’s hard to know where the ceiling will be over $200. It’s down from the highs we saw last winter ($300-350/ton), but still a premium price.”

For good grass hay, prices have been fairly steady at $175-180/ton for square bale packages. Round bales are being priced lower, says Kaatz.

In neighboring Wisconsin, round bales of good grass hay have been bringing $140-160/ton and large square bales as much as $220/ton at Tim Slack Auction & Realty, LLC, a weekly hay auction in Fennimore.

Slack puts the price range on large square bales of premium alfalfa at $240-270/ton. Good round bales of alfalfa have been bringing $150-180/ton.

Given the relatively low supply of high-quality alfalfa in the region, Slack wouldn’t be surprised to see large square prices push to $300/ton or so in coming months. “But I don’t think we’ll see what we saw this past winter when we had prices of $370/ton on a regular basis. A lot of dairy producers have figured out alternative feeding strategies. They just can’t afford that $350-400/ton alfalfa.”

The story is pretty much the same in the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country. “People here had a lot of trouble making hay this year,” says Nevin Tasto, auctioneer and owner at the weekly Westminster Hay Auction in New Windsor, MD.  “It was hard to get three days in a row where it wasn’t raining.”

The Westminster auction caters primarily to the horse hay market. Decent-to-good small squares of mixed-grass hay, weighing 40-50 lbs, have been bringing $5-7/bale in recent weeks, Tasto reports. “The really good stuff will occasionally bring $8/bale. But we’re only seeing that once in a great while.”

Good timothy brings $4-7/bale. Small squares of pure alfalfa sell for a little less than that on the top end. “It has to be really good to bring $6/bale,” he says.

Grass hay in 4 x 4’ or 4 x 5’ round bales markets for $20-30/bale for the most part. “We have seen very fancy alfalfa-timothy mix sell for $50/bale in the rounds, but that’s an exception.” 

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Auction traffic also was light throughout the summer at the Rushville Hay Auction in Harrisonburg, VA, reports owner Tom Weaver, of T. Weaver Auctioneering.

In recent weeks, 5 x 5’ round bales of fair-quality orchardgrass and alfalfa-orchardgrass mix have been bringing $15-23/roll. Good-quality bales have been selling for $30-38/roll. Premium quality has been fetching $40-52/roll. “For large squares, you can add $15/bale across the board to those prices,” Weaver says.

For small squares of orchardgrass and orchardgrass-alfalfa mix, he reports prices of $1-2/bale for fair quality and $4-5.50/bale for premium quality.

Little dairy-quality alfalfa has been up for auction in recent weeks. But, early in October, a load of third-cutting premium alfalfa in large squares sold for $285/ton. A load of fourth-cutting top-quality hay was sold by the bale at $151/bale.

“I’m looking for prices ease on up in the next several weeks,” says Weaver. “We probably won’t have enough high-quality hay to meet demand in the Shenandoah Valley this winter. There’s a lot of hay out there, but the top-quality hay is going to be a little tough to find.”

Market trends are similar heading west. In Colorado, a shortage of good-quality alfalfa and grass hay has kept prices high at the Centennial Livestock Auctions monthly sale in Fort Collins. “The hay that is green and has some eye-appeal to it is selling really well,” reports auction owner Wayne Kruse.

At the September auction, prices for high-quality alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay ranged from $275 to $400/ton, while one load of mountain grass hay sold for $280/ton.

At the higher end of the market, most of the sales have been in smaller lots.

“A lot of it is going to the horse market,” says Kruse. “In the dairy markets, buyers start getting cautious around $220-230/ton. That’s for average dairy-quality hay. If you have real good, green dairy hay to sell, it will bring $250 or more.”

Tight supplies of high-quality product are also driving alfalfa markets in the far West, reports Seth Hoyt, market analyst and author of The Hoyt Report.

The little bit of supreme-quality alfalfa available in central California has been selling for $260-266/ton at the stack. Prices at the top end of the market are “steady to firm,” he says.

At the market’s low end, fair-quality alfalfa hay has been bringing $190-195/ton. Most notably, the spread between top and bottom of the market is widening. “It’s almost pushing a record.”

The prices are different, but overall market trends are mostly the same in nearby states. In Washington and Oregon, supreme-quality alfalfa is bringing $220-230/ton at the stack, while fair-quality hay is selling for $160-170. In Idaho, the price for higher-quality alfalfa is $215-225/ton. For fair quality, Idaho buyers have been paying $160-170.

Hoyt expects the wide spread to continue at least through the start of the winter. “At the high end, the supplies will stay extremely tight. And it’s going take time for lower end hay to move through the market,” he says.

Contact information is as follows: Phil Kaatz, 810-667-0341: Tim Slack, 608-988-6464; Nevin Tasto, 410-374-4067; Tom Weaver 540-435-0020; Wayne Kruse, 970-482-6207, Seth Hoyt,

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