Hay supply up, quality and price lower
While the wet 2009 growing season was great for improving root systems and pastureland, it wasn’t entirely positive for Wyoming hay producers.
“For Thanksgiving I went north to Montana, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much grass as I saw on that trip,” comments Wyoming Business Council Crop and Forage Manager Donn Randall. “I can think of probably four or five locations along I-90 where people have actually gone out and swathed their pastures.”
Randall explains, “There’s a lot of hay, and prices are off from last year. We’ve had a lot of untimely rain and the quality is lower than growers are used to producing and that is a challenge.”
Southeast Wyoming hay producer Michael Lerwick and his family weren’t immune to the challenges Randall mentions. “Our tons were up by one half to one ton per acre on average tonnage, but we were 25 points under on Relative Feed Value (RFV) and $25 under per ton as compared to last year,” says Lerwick. “We are partnered on the hay side with a dairy owner, and that has allowed us to sell ours.” But Lerwick says, “Generally speaking, top-money hay isn’t there. We saw hay sell for $1 – $1.10 per RFV last year and now were at $0.60-$0.70, so there has been around a 30 percent loss.”
Lerwick feels the current dollar loss is two-fold. “Dairy guys can’t afford it and the cowmen went into winter with good grass and it hasn’t been snowed under so the lower quality feeds haven’t gone up.”
“Certain economic conditions and poor milk prices are directly affecting dairy producers. They are just barely holding on,” says Randall, noting this is also impacting hay producers who focus on high quality hay. “They are marketing it to dairies and their customers are going broke, which is having a direct affect on them.”
During a recent conversation Randall learned one dairy producer is only feeding his cows to produce 50 pounds of milk instead of the usual 75 pounds, and that he is one of many in that situation. This is due in part to dairymen using up a lot of their equity while converting from a credit to a cash basis.
“At some point the dairies will use up their equity, if they can’t buy hay some producers will lose their markets,” says Randall, who has already had several calls from producers who typically sell their product into dairy markets in Colorado. “Those markets have disappeared and there’s lots of hay out there,” he says.
TRH Ranch Trucking owner Tom Hamilton of Lance Creek hauls hay primarily in northeastern Wyoming and western South Dakota, where he has also found an abundant supply. “There are a lot of classifieds out there. Hay is everywhere in the state for around $90 a ton, which indicates to me there is plenty of it.”
“From Farson to Saratoga to the western side of the state hay can be found for $90 dollars a ton and Torrington has lots of hay at $10 – $20 dollars off last year,” says Hamilton. “There’s good hay and lots of it.”
The quality of Wyoming hay is well known due largely to several impressive showings at the World Dairy Expo Forage Analysis Superbowl.
“Our poor quality hay in Wyoming is equal to or better than the best hay from the Midwest due to growing conditions and the ability to produce highly digestible hay,” Randall states. “People know what Wyoming hay can do. But they can’t always afford it.”
He encountered a man in such a position while at the Expo. The northwest Minnesota producer runs 150 dairy goats. A couple years ago he bought some Wyoming hay and he told Randall that to this day his goats have yet to produce the pounds of milk per day they did on that hay. When Randall questioned why he didn’t purchase more the response was that it was too expensive.
Another option for high quality hay is to feed it to horses. While Randall has had some calls, it hasn’t been enough to overcome the drop in dairy customers to date. There is also some concern over the blister beetle in places like Arkansas. While this isn’t a problem in Wyoming, it could be if grasshoppers come back, says Randall.
As the new Crop and Forage Manager, Randall hopes to unite producers in a marketing network. “We have the Wyoming Hay List and that’s great if producers use it and most don’t,” he explains. “Most producers need help with marketing skills.”
Randall says he’s trying to get everyone in gear and help them market their hay more effectively.
While this year has brought several challenges to hay producers, there are also opportunities available. Ranchers have the advantage of an increased hay supply combined with a relatively mild winter to date. Hamilton comments, “It might be a good year to lay in some of next year’s hay.”
Heather Hamilton is editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org