Southern livestock producers hard hit by this summer's heat wave and drought are scrambling to find hay.

"The tremendous drought across the Southern Plains will put a lot of pressure on producers down there to demand hay out of the Midwest," says Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist. "It will provide an outlet for much of the average-quality hay that got rained on in the Midwest during the first and second cuttings."

Since it was established June 29, the Texas Hay Hotline has logged almost 50 calls a day from farmers looking for hay, says Don Kuker, director of livestock marketing with the Texas Department of Agriculture.

"There were some Texas farmers who were able to take their very first cutting, but it started getting hot and dry so early that yields were probably 20% of what they normally are," says Kuker. "And that hay is long gone."

The eastern third of Texas, which gets about 40" of rain in a normal year, has gotten only 4" so far this year, says Kuker.

Hay buyers and sellers are urged to call the Texas Hay Hotline at 877-429-1998. They can call the toll-free number 24 hours a day and leave a detailed message.

"About 80% of the hay producers who are listing hay on our hotline are from Missouri and Kansas," he states.

At press time, late-July rains in Florida were helping ease a crisis that had begun to mount there due to the summer's earlier high temperatures and lack of precipitation, says Don Kieffer.

"Without a doubt, the situation a couple of weeks ago was very critical," says Kieffer, executive director of the National Hay Association. "But recently we've gotten a little bit of relief, especially when you consider what our situation is vs. Texas. However, Florida will probably be in the market for hay earlier this year than normal."

Fortunately, production in most of the Midwest, Great Lakes states and Northeast is at near-normal levels, and some growers should have surplus hay to sell, says Purdue's Petritz.

"There are some spot shortages, but as a general rule, there is enough around. We're also seeing hay prices begin to fall locally - which indicates to me that we've got a good supply here," concurs Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist.

In the heavy hay-producing states of the Pacific Northwest, Arizona and New Mexico, mostly normal weather conditions and irrigation water have helped keep production at stable levels, says Wisconsin's Undersander. However, excessive rain has hurt hay production in California.

As usually is the case, premium-quality dairy and horse hay may be tough to find.

"Any way you cut it, you wind up with the dairymen caught in the middle between wanting high-quality dairy hay and not being able to find it," laments Petritz.

"So much of the hay in this region was put up in poor quality either because the early cuttings were delayed or they were cut and then rained on. We have large quantities of hay, but it's generally of poorer quality - unless one was just fortunate enough to miss the rains."

He advises dairy and horse owners to look in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska for higher-quality hay.

Petritz predicts that hay buyers and sellers won't see the record-high prices that permeated the industry in 1996-97.

"This is not going to be a high-priced hay year - other than for the fine-stemmed horse and dairy-quality hay that people are really seeking."

Compared to a year ago, nationwide alfalfa prices in April were about 15% lower. Prices have continued to decline this summer. Mid-month alfalfa prices across the country in June averaged $96.50 per ton, compared to $115 a year earlier.

Large carryover stocks contributed to the price softening. Total hay supplies on farms and ranches totaled 21.7 million tons on May 1, 1998, 25% more than the year-earlier amount and the most since 1994.