Whether you’re a buyer or a seller, trying to figure out a reliable starting point for determining a fair price for hay can be a daunting undertaking. In many parts of the country, Market News reports from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) are considered the best source of information for establishing a local hay market.

“Hay isn’t traded publicly on an exchange like corn, soybeans or wheat,” says Market News Reporter Steve Hessman, who has covered the hay market in Kansas since 1990. “Our goal is to come up with current, unbiased and accurate information that people can use as a price point for buying and selling hay.”

Getting information for the report that he issues out of his Dodge City office each Tuesday requires Hessman to make about 80 phone calls per week. The calls are to a group of contacts throughout Kansas who are actively involved in the hay business year-round.

That includes hay growers, brokers, pellet mill operators and grinders. Once a month, he also calls around 75 feedlot owners/managers for a report on how much hay they’ve been using and what they’ve been paying for that hay.

Assessing the accuracy of what’s reported is the most challenging aspect of the job, says Hessman.

“If someone gives me a number that’s far outside the price range of what’s being reported otherwise for a similar type of hay, I’ll make several follow-up phone calls to verify that the number in question is accurate.”

Depending on the contact, the market reporter will try to structure conversations so that he learns whether he’s talking to buyers or sellers as the conversations are nearly completed.

“You always have to keep in mind that there’s a chance of bias entering in on how people report the numbers. There’s some nuance to it.”

Jack Getz followed a similar routine in gathering information. He retired last May after working 28 years as a Market News hay and livestock reporter at a variety of locations around the U.S.

During his last 11 years on the job, Getz worked out of USDA’s Moses Lake, WA, office. He and another reporter were responsible for covering hay markets and issuing weekly reports for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and California.

The two would make more than 100 phone calls a week in each state to solicit information about hay sales. Contacts included hay producers, brokers, representatives of hay export firms, hay buyers (including dairy operations) and retail stores.

Learning to ask contacts the right kinds of questions about the quality of hay being sold or bought in each sale was the key to obtaining useful, accurate information, according to Getz.

“For example, someone might tell you that they sold 200 tons of grass hay for $70/ton, and that it was pretty good hay,” he says. “If that sounded on the low side compared to other sales, I’d try to get more information on what kind of hay it was. I might ask them if the hay had been rained on. If they replied no, I’d ask them if it had any weeds in it. I’d keep going with those kinds of questions until I felt comfortable that I had a pretty good idea of what kind of hay was involved in the transaction.”

If he couldn’t find an explanation on why the price reported wasn’t within the normal range, Getz would leave that sale out of his report.

“Most of the time we’d have enough other sales to go on to give people a pretty good idea of what a particular kind of hay was selling for in their area, anyway.”

Educating people about the numbers appearing in the reports was an ongoing challenge, Getz adds. “We always had to be careful to remind people – both buyers and sellers – that what was being reported were prices from actual hay sales as opposed to what people thought hay should be selling for.”

The job changed in a variety ways over the years, notes Getz. In his early years, he would make at least one trip a year to an area in each of the states he covered to meet with contacts. Often those trips were a week to 10 days long. Getz would try to combine the stops at individual businesses with attendance at a local or state hay association meeting.

“Meeting face to face made people more comfortable,” he says. “You weren’t just a voice on the phone asking them for information. These days, because of budget cuts, the reporters aren’t able to travel as much, and that’s really too bad.”

More efficient phone communication technology was another major change.

“Years ago, we didn’t have cell phones,” explains Getz. “If you were on the road and needed to contact someone for a report, you had to find a phone booth and just hope they’d be at home or in their office when you called. It’s so much easier to reach people now.”

The Internet changed things, as well. “We used to mail out the reports or fax them to individuals and the media. That limited the number of people who were getting the reports. Now, anyone with a computer can get the reports when it’s convenient for them to do so.”

What hasn’t changed over the years, says Getz, is the commitment that Market News reporters make to ensure that any and all information they publish is accurate.

“Mistakes happen, but they’re rare,” he says. “Sometimes it might be because of something as simple as a typo. But other factors can come into play, too. For example, hay of the same quality will sell for two different prices depending on the size of the sale, how far the hay is being transported, the financial arrangement between buyer and seller or even just the visual appearance of the hay.

“People do read the reports closely. If they see something that doesn’t look quite right, they’ll call and let you know about it.”

For weekly updated Market News hay price reports, go to hayandforage.com and click on USDA Hay Prices.