Some hay growers have used their rain gauges more than their swathers and balers this summer. “I don't ever recall a year like this, when we've had this much rain for such an extended period,” says Les Vough, University of Maryland extension forage specialist. “We need some good haymaking weather.”
Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist, concurs. “This is the most rain I've seen in the northern half of Indiana for 40 years,” he says.
From most of the Midwest, east through the mid-Atlantic region and south to Florida, heavy rains have fallen since spring.
“In some areas, the trouble is not only the amount of water, but the rapid flow of it. It's washing the crops away,” says Petritz. “Other years, when we've had wet weather during hay harvest, I typically say ‘the quality's down and the quantity's up, but at least there's something out there.’ This year, it's not even getting harvested in some areas.”
Even Nebraska growers, who have experienced several years of drought, had a tough time putting up their early cuttings without rain damage.
“It has been a struggle, but we need the rain, so you hate to complain,” says Barb Kinnan, marketing director for the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association. “State-wide, for first cutting there was more rained-on hay harvested than not. Second cutting looked a little better, although some of it was rained on.”
In July, Nebraska's weather made a 180-degree turn.
“We've shifted from rained-on first and early second cuttings to hot, dry weather that's threatening to dramatically cut yields for our third and fourth cuttings if we don't get some rain,” Kinnan reports. “Those early rains were welcomed, but they didn't replenish Nebraska's drought-stricken subsoil.”
In many states, the number of cuttings will be down. “At this point, our growers have lost at least one cutting,” says Maryland's Vough.
He's also concerned about the longer-term effects from harvesting waterlogged alfalfa fields.
“Hay growers have done a lot of damage to their stands by running over them with equipment when they really shouldn't have, but they didn't have any other choices,” he says. “Some of the fields are terribly rutted and compacted from wheel traffic on soft, wet soils.”
Growers in the West and Pacific Northwest could use some of the excess rain that has fallen in other areas.
“Alfalfa growers in eastern Idaho and Utah are in the worst shape this year,” says Jack Getz, a USDA Market News reporter in Moses Lake, WA. “They haven't had much rain or snow to replenish supplies.”
Purdue's Petritz encourages hay buyers to be proactive.
“They better not wait until fall to start looking for hay or adjusting their rations,” he warns. “If I were a dairy producer, I would contact my nutritionist immediately and say, ‘Okay, looking ahead to winter, if we have cheap grain, and good-quality hay is hard to find, what are we going to do?’”
Vough is encouraging horse owners to forward-contract all the hay they'll need up to next April.
“Our horse owners rely on grass hay from the Northeast and Michigan, and half of what's been put up in those areas has been rained on at least once,” Vough says.
Exacerbating supply problems is the fact that hay stocks were very low in several states coming into the growing season, says Petritz, citing USDA figures.
“For Indiana, May 1 hay stocks were 96,000 tons, which is a third the number of tons the state had a year ago and the lowest since the 1930s. Michigan stocks were down 40% and Ohio was down 50%. However, stocks were up in some states, with Texas and Oklahoma boasting increases of 150% and 100%, respectively, from year-ago levels.”