Hay growers in Oklahoma expect to harvest 240,000 more hay acres this year than in 2008, while Texas growers say they'll reduce hay production by 130,000 acres. But Oklahomans aren't ramping up because prices look especially high, and Texans aren't cutting back because of a depressed hay market, say experts in the two states.
Texas and Oklahoma stood out in USDA's March 31 Prospective Plantings report. They're among just a few states where significant hay acreage changes are expected, and the two neighbors are moving in opposite directions. Oklahoma is expected to have the nation's largest hay acreage increase; Texas, the second-biggest reduction.
Overall, USDA predicts that acreage of all types of hay will increase slightly, from 60.1 million acres to 60.3 million. Increases are expected throughout the central Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, with nearly stable acreage in other regions.
Experts in several states where noteworthy changes are expected list a variety of reasons. They say the price outlook for hay vs. that of other crops doesn't give incentive to go in or out of hay production in a big way. In states where acreage will move dramatically up or down, it's mostly a return to more-normal levels.
That's the case in Oklahoma, where alfalfa plantings were higher than normal last fall, says Glen Schickedanz, market news coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. In most cases, growers replaced fields that flooded out two years ago, he says.
Alfalfa hay prices are holding steady, roughly at year-ago levels. Grass hay is more plentiful.
“There's going to be a lot of grass hay carried over in the eastern half of the state,” says Schickedanz.
The second-biggest hay acreage increase — 200,000 acres — is projected for Montana, but that seems “a little high” to Dennis Cash, Montana State University extension forage agronomist. “The seed sales guys have laid in seed as if it's going to happen, so maybe it will,” he says.
In 2007, many growers took out older alfalfa stands and planted spring wheat, says Cash. Some intended to go back to alfalfa last year, but a “weird spring” curtailed planting.
“That may be what's driving the high number this year,” he says.
The Texas acreage loss is probably due to drought, says Larry Redmon, Texas A&M University extension forage specialist.
“It's dry in much of the state, especially places where much of our hay is grown. We've had great demand for hay in the central part of the state and the Rolling Plains and down into South Texas where it's been so dry.”
Fertilizer and other hay production costs may be partly to blame for the acreage decline, Redmon thinks.
“To make good-quality hay takes a lot of money, and then people are reluctant to pay that for the hay. So a lot of educational activity needs to take place, because the day of the $20 and $30 round bale is way behind us.”
A much bigger hay acreage decline is forecast for North Dakota, where growers say they'll harvest 420,000 fewer acres this year than last. However, Matt Diersen, South Dakota State University ag economist, says North Dakota's 2008 acreage was inflated by the harvesting of CRP acres and other crops for forage.
North Dakota was dry in the west, but wet in the east. Yields were high there and in South Dakota, says Diersen.
Although the national acreage forecast is up slightly, he expects production to be similar to that of 2008. With the trend toward fewer alfalfa acres, the all-hay yield will be limited. Cattle numbers and milk prices are down, but not enough to dramatically impact demand.
“From a fundamental standpoint, we're not set up much different from the 2006 marketing year,” he says. “Supplies are about as tight as they were then and prices that year averaged $110/ton, compared to the national hay price of $130/ton for March of 2009.”