Mike Rankin
Alfalfa winterkill. Copious amounts of rain. Extended periods of drought. These all impacted hay production in one region of the U.S. or another during 2019. Tales of haymaking woes ran rampant this past year.

In May 2019, USDA’s average price for alfalfa hay eclipsed $200 per ton for the first time since 2014. All of this pointed to a down year for U.S. hay production. That didn’t happen, at least according to USDA’s ending year estimates of hay stocks, acres, yields, and production.

December 1 hay stocks: After two consecutive years of a reduction in December 1 hay stocks, USDA pegged total hay inventory at 84.5 million tons, up 5.4 million from 2018 and nearly the same total as 2017. These inventory metrics do not take into account forage quality or hay stored as chopped haylage or baleage.

To keep some perspective, 2018 December hay stocks were at their second lowest level since 1957. Only 2012 was lower. The level of December hay stocks has dropped about 10 million tons since 2016. At the same time, we’re using less hay between December and May.

When it comes to hay stocks, the devil is always in the details. Not every state experiences positive gain. For example, Alabama was down 37%, Minnesota was off 17%, and Kentucky was 13% lower than 2018. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio also had double-digit percentage unit reductions in hay inventories.

Many states significantly improved their hay stocks situation. These included Missouri (up 64%), Utah (up 33%), Nevada (up 32%), Arkansas (up 27%), Kansas (up 23%), and Montana (up 21%). To see how your state fared, visit bit.ly/HFG-USDA.

Hay acres and yield: USDA set the final 2019 harvested dry hay acreage at 52.4 million, which was about 400,000 acres fewer than 2018. All of the reduction came from hay acres other than alfalfa (mostly grass). Texas led the nation in 2019 with 4.9 million hay acres and was followed by Missouri (3.36 million acres) and South Dakota (3.35 million acres).

Harvested acres of alfalfa and alfalfa

-grass dry hay mixtures climbed slightly from 16.6 million in 2018 to 16.7 million in 2019. The top three states for alfalfa dry hay acres harvested in 2019 were Montana (2.1 million), South Dakota (1.9 million), and North Dakota (1.2 million).

The average U.S. dry hay yield (all types) jumped from 2.34 tons per acre in 2018 to 2.46 tons per acre in 2019. For alfalfa and alfalfa-grass mixtures, the year-to-year average yield improved from 3.17 to 3.28 tons per acre.

Hay production: The 2019 production of all dry hay types in the U.S. totaled 128.9 million tons, up 4.3 percent from 2018. Total alfalfa dry hay production also increased by 4.3 percent to 54.88 million tons.

Alfalfa hay production in 2019 was cut significantly in North Dakota (down 303,000 tons), Texas (down 208,000 tons), and California (down 160,000 tons). Alfalfa hay production gainers were easily led by South Dakota (up 702,000 tons). This is the second year in a row that South Dakota has led production gainers. Other states with significant gains in alfalfa hay production included Montana (up 620,000 tons) and Kansas (up 385,000 tons).

Bottom line: Virtually all year-over-year dry hay production metrics were up in 2019, but there was variation among states. There’s no reason to believe hay prices will move higher in 2020, although dairy producers will be in a more positive economic position.

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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