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Published May 20, 2013, 09:37 AM

Hay supplies almost gone

Hay supplies are nearly depleted across much of the region, and some ranchers are facing tough choices that can include selling all or part of their herd.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

A poor 2012 hay crop followed by a late spring has nearly exhausted the Upper Midwest’s hay supply, forcing many ranchers to make tough decisions that can include selling livestock.

“Our hay supplies are extremely tight and depleted. And even if you can find hay (to buy), it’s extremely expensive,” says Dar Geiss, a Pierz, Minn., producer and president of the Minnesota State Cattleman’s Association.

In western South Dakota, where drought is particularly severe, “There’s not a lot of hay piles left in the country anymore,” says Adele Harty, cow-calf field specialist for South Dakota State University Extension at the Rapid City Regional Extension Center.

With hay so short, some producers have sold some or all of their herd. Other hard-pressed ranchers have put animals into pastures even though grass there isn’t as advanced as it should be, she says.

Drought across most of the Upper Midwest last summer cut sharply into production of both grass hay and alfalfa, its high-protein cousin that’s widely fed to livestock. The poor harvest was magnified by the late spring, which delayed the growth of grass in pastures.

Normally, ranchers in the Upper Midwest begin feeding a little less hay in late spring, when grass begins growing in pastures. This year, with spring coming so late, grass began growing later and more slowly than it normally does. That’s increased the need for hay, which already was in short supply.

Geiss estimates that Minnesota ranchers, in general, will need to feed hay two or three weeks longer than normal because of the late spring.

Grazing sooner than is ideal

With hay in short supply or unavailable altogether, some South Dakota ranchers have decided to turn out their cattle into pastures where the grass is shorter than it should be. Ideally, grass should be at least 4 to 6 inches tall before grazing begins, Harty says.

Grazing pastures too soon weakens plants and hampers further growth.

Some ranchers in the Upper Midwest have less hay than they’d like, but aren’t dangerously short, officials say.

Many producers in northern North Dakota, for instance, harvested a 2012 crop that, while below average, wasn’t disastrous, says Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

Many of those same producers also enjoyed an exceptionally good 2011 hay crop, some of which was still available going into the winter of 2012 to ’13. The carryover helped make up for the short 2012 hay crop, she says.

Nonetheless, timely moisture and heat are needed to perk up pastures and hayfields this spring, she says.

Some South Dakota producers sold part of their excess hay from the good 2011 crop to drought-stricken ranchers on the Southern Plains, Harty says.

If they could do it again, the South Dakota producers would have held on to that hay and used it themselves this past winter, she says.

Higher hay prices

Hay prices have soared because of tight supplies

At the Rock Valley Hay Auction in northwest Iowa, a large square bale of premium alfalfa is selling for about $265, up from $165 a year ago and $115.50 two years ago.

Rock Valley Hay Auction still has hay for its customers, with most of the hay coming from northern North Dakota, northwest Minnesota and southern Canada, where the 2012 hay crop was relatively good, says Paul McGill, who owns and manages the Rock Valley business.

Area cattle producers would appreciate a late fall, which would allow cattle to graze longer and reduce the amount of hay that’s needed next winter, Geiss says.

Cattle producers also would benefit if the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed more grazing and haying of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, he says.