The old adage, "be careful what you wish for," might apply to Midwestern hay growers who hoped for rain last spring.

Much of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa were under near-drought conditions a few months ago. But heavy rains have ended the dry spell and made it tough to harvest high-quality hay, says Dave Petritz, Purdue University ag economist.

However, drought remains a problem in many states, including parts of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, says Petritz.

In parts of Nebraska, the dryness has become so severe that, at press time, 35 of the state's 93 counties had been released from the federal CRP program, allowing farmers to use the land for grazing or haying. It was expected that more counties would follow suit.

With weather problems stymieing forage production in so many states, Petritz advises dairy producers and horse owners to start locking in hay supplies as soon as possible.

"It's going to be a tough year for hay buyers and sellers because producers just haven't been able to put up enough good-quality hay," says Petritz. "If I was a livestock producer needing high-quality hay, I would start searching immediately for it."

Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist, concurs. "Buyers will likely be able to locate hay, but it won't be of the desired quality unless they buy early," says Undersander. "Of course, there's never enough premium-quality hay available, but I think the shortage will be extra severe this year."

"If producers have been able to avoid the rains or drought and put up high-quality dairy hay, it's going to be worth something in the coming months," says Petritz.

Higher hay prices are good news to growers who have just come through a couple of years of mediocre prices, notes Petritz.

USDA reported in May that prices for alfalfa hay increased $10 per ton between January and April 2000, from $74 to $84. Prices increased the most on the West Coast and in the Northeast; however, these increases were from the lowest prices of alfalfa recorded since early 1992. Overall, prices of alfalfa declined over $50/ton between May 1997 and January 2000.

More information about the 2000 hay crop is available in USDA's Aug. 11 crop report. Hay buyers and sellers can review that report on the Internet at usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/field/pcp-bb. Once you're logged on to that site, look for the "crop production" heading and click on "2000" to access the August report, says Petritz.