Prices for high-quality hay are already out of sight in the eastern Corn Belt, and probably will rise dramatically in other areas if winter hangs on.

Lower carryover from 2001 and reduced production last year resulted in significantly less hay stored on U.S. farms in December. Much more hay is being fed this winter than last, further tightening forage supplies.

The situation is exacerbated in the eastern Corn Belt, where growers harvested fewer acres and dry weather reduced yields in 2002. The result was sharply lower production and limited supplies in that region.

In January, USDA estimated total 2002 hay production at 151 million tons, down 4% from the 2001 total. Alfalfa production, down 8%, was the lowest since 1968. In the Corn Belt, the 2002 alfalfa crop was the smallest since the 1950s.

Dry weather also impacted production in the central and northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. But alfalfa yields increased in the southern Great Plains and South-west. That was due to favorable weather and an extended growing season that allowed later-than-normal cuttings.

Last year's production of all other hay was up 1% from the 2001 figure. The increase was due in part to the release of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for hay harvest.

The majority of the CRP land released was in the northern and central Great Plains. For example, North Dakota's harvested acres increased last year by 750,000, to 1.85 million, the highest since 1991.

Hay production also increased in the Tennessee Valley and Southeast, where tropical storms brought relief to drought-stressed hay fields. Texas and Oklahoma both showed sharp production increases, too, due to the excellent growing conditions and an extended fall growing season.

Combining last year's total hay production with May 1 stocks provides an estimate of the total supply available for the 2002-03 feeding period. That figure totals 173.5 million tons, 2.5% below the year-earlier amount. Roughly 69.7 million tons were fed between May 1 and Dec. 1, leaving 104 million tons stored on farms at the onset of winter. That was 6% below the Dec. 1, 2001, figure.

Thirty-three of the 48 reporting states had lower Dec. 1 stocks. Most states reporting decreases were in the Corn Belt, central Rocky Mountains, northern and central Great Plains, and the Southeast. Stocks were significantly higher in Oklahoma and Texas, mainly due to the before-mentioned production increase.

The lower Dec. 1 stocks, followed by heavier winter feeding, will lead to higher prices, especially for dairy- and horse-quality hay. The magnitude of the increases will depend on late winter and early spring weather, and on price trends of grains and protein feeds.

So far, prices have held mostly steady, except in the eastern Corn Belt.

According to USDA, the nationwide average alfalfa hay price has remained at $100-102/ton since last June. But, in mid-December, alfalfa prices averaged $164, $154 and $130/ton, respectively, in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

USDA's January Crop Production report, which includes details on the 2002 hay crop, can be downloaded at www.usda.gov/nass.