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Published July 02, 2012, 09:50 AM

Region's hay crop smaller this year

The downside to a bumper hay crop is that the next year’s crop probably won’t measure up.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The downside to a bumper hay crop is that the next year’s crop probably won’t measure up.

That seems to be the case this summer across much of the Upper Midwest. The wet spring of 2011 produced a big hay crop, with much drier conditions this spring leading to a smaller crop.

“Last year, we just had an excellent hay crop. This year, it’s not as good,” says Dave Hinneland, a Circle, Mont., sheep producer and past president of the Montana Wool Growers Association.

But he and many other area producers who use hay say they aren’t particularly worried about potential shortages in the winter of 2012 and ’13. The bumper crop of 2011 was followed by an exceptionally mild winter in 2011 and ’12, which means many producers still have plenty of unused hay from a year ago. That hay provides many producers with a safety net going into next winter.

However, while there was pretty good carryover, some producers don’t have that safety net, says Paul McGill, owner and manager of Rock Valley Hay Auction. Rock Valley is in northwest Iowa.

The company buys hay from South Dakota, Minnesota and North Dakota. It sells primarily within 50 miles of Rock Valley, but has customers across the country, McGill says.

He notes that prices of hay and alfalfa sold by his company have risen substantially in the past year.

For instance, a large square bale of premium alfalfa sold for $165 to $175 in mid-June. That’s up from $117.50 a year ago.

Yields of first-cutting alfalfa across the region are down because of frost and dry weather, he says.

Yields of grass hay are down 50 to 65 percent across the region, he estimates.

Insects are damaging alfalfa in parts of the region, too.

Alfalfa weevil has been reported across much of North Dakota, and most producers took their first alfalfa cutting early to minimize damage, says Janet Knodel, North Dakota State University Extension Service entomologist.

Producers also need to watch for blister beetles, which contain a chemical that is toxic to livestock, with horses particularly at risk, she says.

Wide variations in hay crop

Generalizing about this year’s hay crop in Minnesota is difficult, says Dan Martens, aUniversity of Minnesota educator of ag production systems, who’s based in Benton County.

“There’s a wide variety in weather conditions in Minnesota this year, more than usual,” he says.

Frost, moisture shortages and even a freak May 1 hailstorm, all have worked against hay production so far, he says.

On balance, though, overall hay production in the state likely is down from a year ago, he says.

But some producers in the state take as many as four cuttings of alfalfa, and second, third and fourth cuttings could be more plentiful than the first cutting, he says.