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Beef prices, big hay crop produce optimism

Plentiful hay supplies and record-high beef prices made this a Christmas to remember for Upper Midwest cattle producers, especially after widespread drought and storms in 2012 and 2013.

Plentiful hay supplies and record-high beef prices made this a Christmas to remember for Upper Midwest cattle producers, especially after widespread drought and storms in 2012 and 2013.

"There's just a big sigh or relief. Folks are feeling a little more secure going into 2015," says Rachel Endecott, Montana State University Extension beef specialist.

Beef prices, which have been strong for several years, rose even higher in 2014 and are expected to remain robust for the foreseeable future. Though feeder cattle prices plunged for several days in December, causing temporary consternation in the cattle industry, prices quickly rallied.

Widespread rains in 2014 led to one of the best hay crops that most ranchers can remember.

"I don't know if it was the best ever. But it's in the top 20 percent," says Bob Fortune, a Belvedere, S.D., rancher and president of the state Stock Growers association.

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Steve Brooks, a Bowman, N.D., rancher and president of the state Stockmen's Association, says he doesn't remember a year since the 1980s when hay supplies were this good.

Hay supplies are good in Minnesota, too, says Ashley Kohls, executive director of the state Cattlemen's Association.

The big hay crop, combined with leftover hay from a generally good 2013 hay crop, gives some ranchers across the region a two-year supply of hay.

To be sure, much of the hay lost nutritional quality after heavy fall rains. Some hay was hit so hard that there are questions about whether it can even be fed.

Endecott says she's seen big round bales in low-lying areas that were "half to two-thirds submerged in water. It was unreal. It was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen."

On the other hand, the heavy fall moisture boosted late-summer and early-fall growth in pastures. That allowed some Montana ranchers to graze their animals longer in the fall and early winter, reducing the amount of hay they'll need to feed this winter, she says.

Many area livestock producers, especially ones in the Dakotas and Minnesota, also have greater-than-usual opportunity to feed corn this winter.

Some corn fields were damaged by frost or were wet when harvested, making them most suitable for feed.

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High cattle prices, which are projected to last for at least several years, are causing many producers to consider expanding their herds. Plentiful feed supplies for 2015 strengthen the case for doing so.

"Years like this just don't come along very often," Fortune says.

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