SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — Hay and straw bedding supplies are adequate in the region, but values are holding up, perhaps because of talk of potential drought in the region.

Hay supplies are adequate for this time of year, according to sale-goers at the Mid-American Auction Co. at Sauk Centre, Minn., but prices have remained fairly strong, in part because some livestock producers are laying in extra loads in case dry conditions turn toward drought. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Hay supplies are adequate for this time of year, according to sale-goers at the Mid-American Auction Co. at Sauk Centre, Minn., but prices have remained fairly strong, in part because some livestock producers are laying in extra loads in case dry conditions turn toward drought. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Alan Wessel is co-owner of Mid-American Auction Co. Inc., at Sauk Centre, Minn. Mid-America has been in business for 50 years, and established the hay auction nearly 30 years ago.

Alan “Al” Wessel is a co-owner of Mid-American Auction Co., which holds farm and livestock sales, but is known for its large hay sales at Sauk Centre, Minn.
Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Alan “Al” Wessel is a co-owner of Mid-American Auction Co., which holds farm and livestock sales, but is known for its large hay sales at Sauk Centre, Minn. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Wessel and partner Kevin Winter hold hay auctions the first and third Thursdays of the month, September through May, and once a month in June, July and August. (The company also conducts farm auctions and livestock dispersals, primarily dairy herds.)

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The most recent Mid-America hay auction on March 4 was a big one. It drew 200 loads and 100 bidders. (The record-high was 230 loads a couple of years ago.)

Provided with detailed feed value information, hay loads are sold in 15 to 20 seconds per load -- no more than 30 seconds. The Mid-American Auction Co. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Provided with detailed feed value information, hay loads are sold in 15 to 20 seconds per load -- no more than 30 seconds. The Mid-American Auction Co. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“It’s traditionally a time when sellers … think it’s the optimum value. It’s also a time that many producers are a little short on feedstuffs this time of year,” Wessel said. “That coincides nicely.”

Some buyers represent large dairies and purchase multiple loads. Others may have beef cattle and need only one load to get to pasture time. Some participate weekly to provide feed for cattle.

30 seconds, tops

Hay sells by the ton and is based on quality.

Sellers preregister the weights. The auction company takes samples to a nearby Dairy Herd Improvement Association laboratory in Sauk Centre. DHIA verifies its “relative feed value” — an index for nutrient value, comparing it to “full bloom” alfalfa hay. The lab tests moisture and other components, and it’s all posted on bright placards with each load.

Hay supplies are adequate for this time of year, according to sale-goers at the Mid-American Auction Co. at Sauk Centre, Minn., but prices have remained fairly strong, in part because some livestock producers are laying in extra loads in case dry conditions turn toward drought. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Hay supplies are adequate for this time of year, according to sale-goers at the Mid-American Auction Co. at Sauk Centre, Minn., but prices have remained fairly strong, in part because some livestock producers are laying in extra loads in case dry conditions turn toward drought. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Typically, hay sells for $1 per point of RFV, Wessel said. A load of hay testing at 150 to 160 RFV likely goes for $150 to $160 per ton. Buyers might pay more if it comes from a particular seller.

A typical load is sold in about 15 to 20 seconds — half a minute at the most.

“We’re in the heart of the heart of the dairy industry here, kind of on the line,” Wessel said, with more dairy to the south and beef cattle to the north. Buyers coming from a long distance can expect a “good, steady run,” and adequate supplies to pick from.

Hay loads offer a palette of earthy greens, browns and yellow at the Mid-American Auction Co. sales at Sauk Centre, Minn. This sale had 200 loads, a bit short of a 230-load record for a sale, established two years ago. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Hay loads offer a palette of earthy greens, browns and yellow at the Mid-American Auction Co. sales at Sauk Centre, Minn. This sale had 200 loads, a bit short of a 230-load record for a sale, established two years ago. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Sellers often come from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Canada — occasionally Montana or even Idaho. Buyers come from as far away as Wisconsin, southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, with easy logistics on U.S. Highway 71, going north and south, and Interstate Highway 94, going east and west.

Many of the hay sellers have commercial trucking businesses and deliver the product to the end-users, typically $4 per loaded mile to the destination. Mid-America makes its commission from the seller, with no “buyer’s premium,” to the purchasers.

Hay sales at Mid-American Auction Co. at Sauk Centre, Minn., start at 12:30 p.m., sharp, the first and third Thursdays every month in the winter and monthly in the summer. Within two hours, auctioneers sell some 200 loads at the big sales, like this one on March 4, 2021.
Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Hay sales at Mid-American Auction Co. at Sauk Centre, Minn., start at 12:30 p.m., sharp, the first and third Thursdays every month in the winter and monthly in the summer. Within two hours, auctioneers sell some 200 loads at the big sales, like this one on March 4, 2021. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

'Pretty big deal'

Robert Rinkenberger, Morris Minn. (left) and Shawn Norman of Rothsay, Minn., for more than 20 years have been regularly sellers at the Mid-American Auction Co. hay sales in Sauk Centre, Minn. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Robert Rinkenberger, Morris Minn. (left) and Shawn Norman of Rothsay, Minn., for more than 20 years have been regularly sellers at the Mid-American Auction Co. hay sales in Sauk Centre, Minn. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Shawn Norman of Rothsay, Minn., standing in a huddle of sellers, waiting for the sale to start.

Norman raises hay and grain with his brother, Jesse, at Norman Brothers Farms. About 20% of the Norman farm economics depends on hay. Hay production is famously labor-intense.

“I tell people the reason we raise hay is so we have something to do every weekend of the summer and the Fourth of July,” he said, only half joking.

Hay sellers park their rigs and commiserate prior to a March 4, 2021, sale at the Mid-American Auction Co. facility at Sauk Centre, Minn. Hay sold at surprisingly strong prices for availability, possibly because of worries about drought-like conditions heading into 2021. Some sellers also haul hay up to 300 miles to end-users. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Hay sellers park their rigs and commiserate prior to a March 4, 2021, sale at the Mid-American Auction Co. facility at Sauk Centre, Minn. Hay sold at surprisingly strong prices for availability, possibly because of worries about drought-like conditions heading into 2021. Some sellers also haul hay up to 300 miles to end-users. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Robert Rinkenberger, Morris Minn., who raises alfalfa and grass hay on about 250 acres, works with his son, who has his own hay. The two have been coming to the auction for 20 years or more.

Norman’s farm brought 100 tons to the Sauk Centre sale — the production of about 25 acres. The farm brought four different loads from last year’s first-, second- and third-cuttings.

Hay is sold by the ton, but seller Shawn Norman of Rothsay, Minn., at the Mid-American Auction Co. sale on March 4, 2021, displays the tag that offers laboratory information on quality factors -- which cutting,  dry matter, protein, moisture content, and fiber. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Hay is sold by the ton, but seller Shawn Norman of Rothsay, Minn., at the Mid-American Auction Co. sale on March 4, 2021, displays the tag that offers laboratory information on quality factors -- which cutting, dry matter, protein, moisture content, and fiber. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The quality and value of hay cuttings tend to increase through the year. With each cutting, the stems become shorter, with more leaves. Buyers paid about $1.25 per point for Norman’s hay.

It’s can be an “all-day affair” for a supplier bringing hay here. “You won’t get anything done at home," Norman said. Three of the loads went within 35 miles, and the farthest was about 100 miles to Sleepy Eye, Minn.

Norman and Rinkenberger sometimes travel 200 to 300 miles after a sale.

“We go wherever the buyer tells us to go. We’ve gotten home as late as 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sometimes we’re home by 5 o’clock the same afternoon,” Norman said.

A placard on U.S. Highway 71 on the south side of Sauk Centre, Minn., announces the Mid-American Auction Co. hay auctions that are held on the first and third Thursdays this time of year, and monthly in the summer. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
A placard on U.S. Highway 71 on the south side of Sauk Centre, Minn., announces the Mid-American Auction Co. hay auctions that are held on the first and third Thursdays this time of year, and monthly in the summer. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

2020 to 2021

Mid-American Auction Co. hay auctions are held the first and third Thursday of each month from September through May, and then monthly from June through August. Big sales involve 200 loads and attract 100 buyers, who study data on loads prior to the sale.. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Mid-American Auction Co. hay auctions are held the first and third Thursday of each month from September through May, and then monthly from June through August. Big sales involve 200 loads and attract 100 buyers, who study data on loads prior to the sale.. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Rinkenberger said a wetter year this year would likely mean more tonnage. A drier year would mean shorter supplies, with better prices for high-quality hay. “It kind of averages out. It kind of depends on how big the area is that‘s affected.”

The 2020 crop year was a reprieve from a string of several years with excessive or untimely rains. Rinkenberger pegged the crop as “a tad bit above average” yield, at about 5.5 to 6 tons per acre. Norman said his farm typically shoots for 4 tons per acre, and probably got about 4.5 tons per acre.

Both are wary about this year’s dry trend.

“I think we have enough moisture for a good first (cutting) crop, but we will need some moisture, which is unusual for us. We’ve been exceptionally wet for many years,” Norman said.

About 100 buyers gather to peruse loads prior to the 12:30 p.m. sales on first and third Thursdays at Mid-American Auction Co. headquarters at Sauk Centre, Minn. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
About 100 buyers gather to peruse loads prior to the 12:30 p.m. sales on first and third Thursdays at Mid-American Auction Co. headquarters at Sauk Centre, Minn. Photo taken March 4, 2021, Sauk Centre, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Both sellers indicate that the hay price is heavily influenced by what dairies are being paid for milk.

“If they’re getting a good price for the milk the hay price will be good, generally,” he said. “From what I talk to my guys, right now the milk is down. We’re hoping for a rebound there. It helps us, too.”

Cows eat more in colder weather, so a balmier March reduces demand for hay.

Cows need more bedding in wetter weather, so a drier March cuts demand for straw.

The ‘D’ word

Livestock producers are becoming more concerned about potential drought.

Most haven’t seen much moisture in the past 90 days, Wessel said. Wessel emphasizes he’s not hoping for drought. But “we often remind folks — as a selling point — that if we receive no more moisture in the next 90 … it’s good insurance policy to have an extra load or two in the shed."

(Wessel is quick to emphasize, however, that he is not hoping for drought.)

Wessel said livestock producers who buy hay in central Minnesota are “OK,” financially, but that’s sometimes hard to know.

“Most folks that are ag-related kind of mind their own business,” he said. They don’t tell their troubles — maybe to Jesus and no one else. So if they’re experiencing a little difficulty, they just kind of work through it. Work a little harder. Get up a little earlier. Stay up a little later. That’s the kind of folks we deal with here. That’s why we are so fortunate — really blessed — to work with folks in the ag industry.”