While the stock market was crashing early this summer, the stage was being set for hay prices to move in the opposite direction.

“We're seeing a fair amount of tightness in the hay supply,” reports Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist. “That's due to drought in several states, coupled with the difficulty growers in the Corn Belt had putting up good-quality first and second cuttings.”

Anderson says Nebraska prices have already started to rise, with quotes reaching $80-100/ton for reasonable-quality beef cow hay.

“There hasn't been much good-quality dairy hay put up across the Midwest so far this summer,” adds Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist. “I expect to see prices continue to rise, especially as we go into the winter, unless things really change a lot in the next month or so.”

“Unless hay growers have access to irrigation, production will be greatly reduced in the major supply areas,” weighs in Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist. “This appears to be shaping up as a year during which the management abilities of dairy producers, who are dependent on high-quality alfalfa, will be challenged.”

As evidence of the widespread drought, USDA had approved 18 states for CRP emergency haying and grazing by press time. But Nebraska's Anderson doubts that CRP harvesting will have much impact.

“CRP land suffered some drought too, so there are some limitations as to how much that is going to augment forage supplies,” he points out.

From his post in Moses Lake, WA, the situation looks better to Jack Getz, who heads USDA's Market News for Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California.

“With the exception of a few areas of Idaho and southern Utah, most growers in the Northwest are in better shape now than they were at this time last year,” says Getz. “Our irrigators have enough water, thanks to adequate snowfall last winter. That doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet, but we're headed in that direction.”

Weather problems haven't completely eluded Northwestern hay growers. The cool, late spring resulted in lighter-than-normal first cuttings and higher prices in Washington and parts of Oregon.

“Exporters competed against one another for non-rained-on hay, and that really stimulated the market and raised prices,” says Getz.

These experts urge hay buyers to be proactive.

“If I were a dairy producer dependent on alfalfa, I would be working closely with my regular supplier, and looking for alternative ration mixtures,” advises Petritz.

Beef producers should look at alternative feeds, wean calves early and consider selling animals if hay prices get too high, says Anderson.

USDA reports that some Colorado herds have already been sold or reduced to core numbers.