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Published October 12, 2011, 11:42 AM

Record-high hay prices straining Kansas dairies

WICHITA, Kan. — A summer of drought that wilted pastures and alfalfa fields has led to record high hay prices this fall and looming shortages to feed cattle this winter.

By: Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. — A summer of drought that wilted pastures and alfalfa fields has led to record high hay prices this fall and looming shortages to feed cattle this winter.

Experts say those feeling the misery most keenly are the nation's dairies, where milk cows need top quality hay at a time when milk prices are slipping. By contrast, producers of stock cattle typically don't require the most expensive hay to fatten their livestock for slaughter and can also more easily absorb higher feed costs because beef prices are high now.

Cattle producers also have more flexibility in reducing their herd sizes during drought years than do dairymen, whose operations require extensive milking facilities.

Prices for most dairy and feed quality hay have about doubled compared with a year ago, setting an all-time high record.

Top quality alfalfa — usually the last cutting of alfalfa during the ideal cooler weather of fall — is fetching as high as $310 a ton in Kansas. The same hay hauled down to dairies in drought-plagued Texas or New Mexico can cost as much as $350 a ton or more. Even stock cow hay in Kansas is fetching between $230 and $250 a ton.

Alfalfa is preferred by dairymen to other hay for milk cows because of its high protein content.

At the Agriculture Department's market news office in Dodge City, hay market reporter Steve Hessman said this is the worst year he has seen in the 20 years he has been there.

"Everything has been to increase the demand or shorten the supply," Hessman said. "That is what has made it worse than normal from any other year where we have been through shortages,"

On Tuesday, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported hay and forage supplies were short to very short in 56 percent of Kansas. Just 40 percent had adequate supplies, and 4 percent had a surplus.

Many Kansas producers shipped their hay to drought-plagued Texas and Oklahoma where they could find the highest prices. That has left many Kansas dairy and stock cattle producers scrambling to finding enough hay to feed their livestock this winter.

Hessman estimated half of the hay that will be fed to livestock this winter in Kansas is coming in from Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and even as far away as Canada.

Kansas already started out with fewer hay acres this spring because when hay prices were down, many farmers plowed up their alfalfa fields and planted corn instead. The 650,000 acres of alfalfa in Kansas this year was the lowest acreage number since at least 1980, Hessman said.

"We started out short on acres and then we had the drought on top of it and high demand on top of that — and that is why this has created the perfect storm for shortage and high demand and high prices," Hessman said.

Kansas is bailing the very last of its hay fields now. Making matters worse here is that southwest Kansas — where the state's best irrigated hay is grown — was so dry producers came up against their water allotments on more than half of the irrigated circles and didn't have that last cutting of "real good hay" Hessman said.

Many dairymen in Kansas have their own land where they can grow hay or other roughage for themselves and can weather hay shortages better than their counterparts in the Texas Panhandle or New Mexico, where every mouthful cattle eat must be purchased.

At least some Texas dairymen are trying to survive the drought by leasing their milking cows to dairies in places such as Nebraska that have gotten more rain and have better feed supplies, said Mike Bodenhausen, executive director of the Kansas Dairy Association.