The lack of hay across the U.S. can in part be blamed on too little rain – or too much – as well as extreme hot or cool temperatures this growing season. But the loss of hay acreage to more lucrative crops has also hurt supply and spurred demand.
Hay & Forage Grower checked with growers and forage experts in dramatically affected areas, asking where hay prices, demand and supply were and where they think they’re going. Prices were gathered in mid- and late July.
The search is already on by dairies, beef producers, horse owners and other hay feeders in the Southern Plains to lock up whatever supplies they can find before the fall-winter feeding season. A severe, season-long drought has crimped regional forage production on an unprecedented scale.
“It’s gotten to the point where I almost don’t want to answer the phone anymore,” says Ross Kinney. He grows bermudagrass hay, primarily for the horse market, on two farms – one irrigated, the other dryland – near Kilgore in northeastern Texas.
Most years, Kinney cuts his dryland acres every 28 days starting in mid-May. This year, he took a cutting on May 28 and hasn’t been back on fields. Production on his irrigated ground has fared little better. While he’s been running his irrigation gun almost non-stop since late May, production has only been 65-70% of normal.
According to USDA, hay production throughout Texas was running one-third to half of normal through mid-July.
“People know we irrigate, so they think we might have hay for sale,” says Kinney, who has fielded inquiries from as far away as Houston. “But what we have been able to produce is reserved for our long-time customers. I’ve even had to tell some of them that, if they can find hay somewhere else, they should probably buy it.”
Hay sellers throughout the Southern Plains told similar stories with increasing frequency as summer progressed. In Oklahoma, many alfalfa growers turned off irrigation pivots for the season in mid-July rather than continue fighting triple-digit temperatures and high winds. In-state hay-for-sale listings on a state-run, online hay directory dropped sharply – from more than 200 to around 50 – during the first two weeks of July.
As of early July, large quantities of hay were already moving into Kansas’ drought-impacted areas from mostly unaffected northern-most counties, and from Nebraska and the Dakotas, notes Steve Hessman, USDA Market News reporter in Dodge City. “It’s the earliest we’ve ever seen this kind of movement.”
Steadily rising hay prices are the key factor, he says. Supreme-quality dairy alfalfa in southwestern Kansas was selling for $200-250/ton, nearly double the price of a year earlier. Stock cow alfalfa topped the $200/ton mark, up from $100-125/ton last summer. Even grinding-quality alfalfa, selling for $95-110/ton a year ago, was bringing $200/ton.
“The higher prices are helping growers in areas of the country where there is a fair amount of hay to cover their transportation costs,” he says.
Still, Hessman wonders just how much livestock producers will be willing or able to pay for hay later in the year.
“We’ve been hearing about growers getting inquiries from Texas dairies looking for hay. But a lot of those dairies are quite a ways south. By the time you get hay delivered there, you’re talking about a price of $300/ton or more. At that point, a dairy producer really has to ask whether it’s worth it to buy that hay and lose money. For some, selling cows might be a better alternative. Some may be forced to liquidate or cut back on cow numbers.”
Also caught in drought, many Georgia producers have been feeding bermudagrass and bahiagrass hay the past month or two – when they should be making it, says Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage specialist. He estimates that production is down to half of what’s normal for this time of year and it doesn’t help that state hay acreage is down by 12%.
Grass hay is temporarily holding at around $120/ton for beef cattle. High-quality grass hay begins at $160-180/ton and premium alfalfa is above $275/ton.
In late July, Hancock reports, sporadic showers perked up pastures. But conditions are still rated poor or very poor on about half the state’s grazing ground.
“It’s getting very hard to find hay. Most of these producers would say that, if it started raining right now, they would have enough hay to get through the winter. However, the forecast is not good. We’re going to have a really tough time being able to feed all the mouths this winter.”
Beef cattle sales are up, reflecting the most cost-effective option open to producers: culling. Overgrazed, drought-stressed pastures are infested with grubs and beetles that, in cases, kill bermudagrass stands.
“I never thought I would have a situation where we could kill common bermudagrass. But we have that this year,” he says.
The other forage mainstay, corn silage, is doing “fairly well” on irrigated acres, but dryland corn “has frequently been a failure. We have a very large proportion of our dryland corn that never even made it waist-high, much less make an ear. So we have a lot of drought-stressed corn that’s being salvaged as some sort of stored forage.”
Pennsylvania growers and dairy producers are feeling the heat – literally – when it comes to low hay supply and high prices, says Paul Craig, Dauphin County Extension agent.
“We’re dry, and it couldn’t have hit us at a worse time,” he says. First and second hay cuttings were good, but 100° July temperatures hampered third cutting and could lead to a less-than-desirable fourth.
“Widespread, we’re thankful for what we have right now, but we’re on the short side and have guys going to hay auctions out of state – Virginia and North Carolina – already looking for forage. We’re seeing prices unheard-of for this time of year. Hay that a year ago was $190/ton is now around $275/ton.”
There’s also competition for lower-quality hay. “Gas companies in western and northern Pennsylvania are gobbling up mulch hay to use to reseed gas lines, well sites and other disturbed areas, and it’s driving up the price of that hay.”
Mulch hay, usually relegated to mushroom growers, last year brought $60-90/ton. It sells for $125/ton now, Craig says.
“We will see our guys very aggressively going after that fall harvest. Whether it’s the fifth cutting or the fourth, they will be trying to maximize the amount of forage that they can put up.”
At the same time, the heat wave is shriveling corn-silage yields.
“We’ve got corn tasseling. We’ve got corn 12” tall to knee-high right now (in mid-July) from late plantings. By the 15th of August, guys are probably going to be chopping corn silage, partly because of the need to feed and partly because it’s maturing faster because of the heat and drought.
“Yet we could get showers next week and be over the hump,” Craig adds.
He’s advising growers to plant oats after chopping corn silage this year.
“Some guys like to plant a winter grain like rye or triticale or barley” to provide winter cover and forage the next spring. “But you can’t plant triticale or rye or wheat because it’s too early. About the only thing you could plant would be oats. Late-summer plantings of oats can make excellent oatlage harvested 70 days post planting. Plant at 3 bu/acre and topdress with 40 units of N or manure.”
Central California dairy producers are paying $250 to up to $300/ton for supreme alfalfa hay – when they can find it – and may not have an adequate corn-silage backup, suggests Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis Extension forage specialist.
Growing-degree days were “less than normal” during a cool, wet spring and early summer, but were somewhat normal in July. The forage expert estimates that production could be down as much as a ton per acre for the year.
But alfalfa hay is scarce more because of acreage competition from other crops, such as cotton, tomatoes, sunflowers, and wheat planted last fall, he says. Hay exports have picked up, too.
“We had some new plantings of alfalfa this spring, but not really enough to change the supply-and-demand situation. It will remain to be seen this fall whether we’ll have an increase in acreage or how big that increase will be. Normally, with record-high prices for alfalfa hay, you would see an expansion of acreage, but it’s uncertain because of the competing-crop issue.”
Although milk prices are up, dairy producers are having a hard time finding dairy-quality hay. Some are adding straw to dry-cow rations to stretch supplies.
“Also, hay growers have responded to the way the markets have changed. With the price of even lower-quality alfalfa hays being so good, a lot of growers are saying, ‘I’m going to go for yield; I’m not going for quality.’ And the dairies are going to have to accept a little lower quality.”
At this point it’s questionable how much total corn silage will be available, Putnam says.
Although corn acres are up in California, including silage, growers could shift to grain production. That’s if corn-grain prices are high at summer’s end or they get nervous about a dairy’s ability to pay. It will depend upon the relative price. Growers have had a hard time collecting corn silage payments from financially strapped dairies the past few years and have shifted acreage, the forage specialist says.
Dick Schader raises 5,000 acres of irrigated alfalfa outside Macdoel in northern California, near the Oregon border. He figures the cool weather will take half a cutting from the usual three he gets.
“It’s 15-20° below normal here on the West Coast,” he says. “Instead of being 90°, it’s 70°. Instead of being 55° at night, it’s 45° or 40°. I wish the weather would cooperate. We won’t get these growing-degree days back.”
Siskiyou County farm advisor Steve Orloff agrees. “Yields are down because of the bizarre weather we’ve had and supplies overall are down because acreage hasn’t kept up with the demand.”
High-end hay, delivered, goes for $260-270/ton, Schader says. “But that’s with a $40 freight bill. California dairies get a lot of hay out of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, but last winter a lot of the hay got used up. The imports into California are a lot less than they were a year ago because the carryover hay is just not there.”
Schader doesn’t like the price spikes.“When hay gets this high, dairymen just compromise and feed less hay. Instead of feeding 12 lbs a day, they may feed 6 lbs. In reality, you’re losing the customer base or tonnage base that may or may not come back when things turn.”
Some dairies no longer feed any hay, he adds. “They just give them a lot of corn silage and other commodities, a lot more almond hulls.”
The weather has been more moderate in Idaho, says Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho Extension forage specialist. Even so, a cool spring yielded a very poor first cutting, and alfalfa acreage decreased from 1.2 million to 1.02 million. Hay production will decline by 20-25%, he predicts.
Premium and supreme hays are at $225/ton, he adds, and a lot is moving despite being $100/ton more than has been normal.
“Dairymen are concerned about having an adequate supply. I don’t think it’s a panic mode, but they are trying to line up and purchase what they are going to need.
“One thing that might mitigate it a little bit – I think our corn grain acres are up but a lot of the corn is very immature. So there could be some shift to corn silage to help make up that (forage) gap.”
Also, native range and pasture lands produced “abundant” forage in July, so beef producers won’t be looking for forage, Shewmaker surmises.