What a difference a few months can make. Last fall, Nate Jaeger’s phone was literally ringing off the hook with calls from panicked, would-be hay buyers in drought-stricken regions of the country. In recent months, that’s changed dramatically, says Jaeger, who maintains the AlabamaHayBarn.com website for the Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA) Hay and Crops Division.

“I haven’t had a single call from anyone looking for hay in 2013,” he says.

That’s largely because many buyers were able to line up supplies before the winter feeding season started, Jaeger believes. Favorable fall and winter weather in many areas may also have played a role. “Farmers and ranchers in places like Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma have been getting some moisture for ryegrass and other winter annuals for their pastures. That’s lessened some of the demand for hay.”

As of early last week, two dozen listings of hay for sale were still on the ALFA website, he says. “Overall, listings were down a little this year compared to other years. But that’s what you’d expect. Hay was in such high demand, it didn’t take a lot of work to sell it.”

The story is similar in Oklahoma, says Jack Carson, market reporter for the USDA-Oklahoma Department of Agriculture (ODA) Market News in Oklahoma City. 

Over the last few weeks, he’s been getting two to three calls per week from people looking to sell hay. “But I haven’t gotten any calls from people looking to buy hay,” says Carson, who maintains two ODA hay directories – one listing hay for sale by Oklahoma producers, the other for out-of-state sellers.

“I’ve even been getting some calls from producers wondering if the hay they’ve listed for sale is still on our site. They haven’t been getting any calls from buyers, either.”

Dwindling cattle numbers, resulting in part from high feed prices brought on by last year’s drought, help explain hay buyers’ decreased interest, says Carson. Since 2007, he notes, the Oklahoma beef-cow herd has declined 15%. “Because of that, the demand for hay is not as great as it was. That’s true in other states in the region as well.”

Hay listings can stay on the site for 60 days. After that, Carson calls sellers to see if they want to continue listing. In the last several weeks, about half want to remove their listings even though they haven’t sold the hay.

“Some say they want to be off the list because the demand just isn’t there. But others have told me that they’re concerned about what’s likely to happen with hay production in 2013, because it’s still so dry here. They’re thinking they might eventually need that hay for themselves.”

In Mississippi, too much precipitation this winter has created a similar market dynamic. Over the last several weeks, parts of the state had 10” or more of rainfall.

“That’s put ryegrass production in many pastures about two weeks behind,” reports Mississippi State University forage specialist Rocky Lemus, who manages the Mississippi Hay Directory. “Livestock producers who ordinarily might be thinking of selling any excess hay supplies are holding onto their hay until they see what happens with those pastures.”

The Mississippi website had roughly 9,000 hits last year, double the number recorded in 2011. So far in 2013, the site’s activity has slowed considerably. “A lot of people were able to find what they needed in September through November,” Lemus says. “So there aren’t as many people looking at the site now.”

Demand hasn’t tapered off in Michigan, according to Phil Kaatz, an area field crops specialist with Michigan State University Extension. He oversees the Michigan Hay Sellers List, which is still getting buyer inquiries and picking up several new hay-for-sale listings each week.

Most buyers in recent weeks have been horse owners unable to get adequate supply sources lined up before the winter feeding season began. “A number of those calls have been from people who, for one reason or another, have found themselves with a few extra animals that they hadn’t planned on feeding when the winter started.”

New seller listings are coming mostly from livestock producers who have been holding hay supplies as part of an overall feeding-marketing strategy. “It’s not unusual in Michigan to see more hay coming onto the market at this time of year. With last year’s drought here, livestock producers wanted to make sure they had enough hay on hand to meet their own needs. If they got through the winter in good shape, they’re thinking they better sell that hay now while there’s still a market and a pretty good price for it.”