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Hay Production

A mid-August report from Texas Agri-Life Extension says the drought in the south continues, hay supplies are very short, cattle are being sold and pastures and crops are burning up.

Central Texas reports trees are showing signs of severe stress, and stock tank water levels are very low, which is expected to cause the sale of more livestock. All hay that’s being fed has been imported from other states.

For Wyoming and other northern hay-producing states, that means a steady stream of trucks loaded with hay has been heading south. Wyoming Business Council Crop and Forage Program Manager

Donn Randall says he counted 22 trucks loaded with hay headed out of the state between Cheyenne and Shoshoni, in late July.

According to the July 22 Hoyt Report, in one week 3,000 tons of hay left Wyoming.

The strong demand from southern states, combined with a cold, wet start to the growing season and some alfalfa acreage replaced by corn, has, so far, resulted in below-average supplies in Wyoming this summer.

“We started out this year with so much rain and cool weather that the quality wasn’t very good, but our tonnage was,” says Barry McRea of Valley Video Hay Markets in Torrington, which is operated in conjunction with Torrington Livestock Markets. “Then the second cutting’s tonnages were very good, with the moisture, but we also had the heat and it grew so fast that we’re not growing as much dairy hay in the areas I service.”

Alcova hay producer Ron Richner agrees, saying his area’s production has been a little lower this year than usual because of the cool weather.

“The hay didn’t grow as well, and the undergrowth didn’t come into the grass hay as well,” he says.

Fremont County alfalfa producer Lloyd Dechert, who operates Wyoming Hay Cubes with his son Jerry Dechert, says it looks to be a good year for hay markets, but he also sees his area’s alfalfa yields down 10 percent.

“Weather and insects play a part in yield, and with the cool spring it didn’t start as early,” he says. “We cut the first cutting a little later, but the second cutting looks pretty good. As far as a shortage of hay overall this year, we’ll know that when the hay season’s over.”

Richner sells most of his hay locally to horse markets, and he comments that prices are “higher than a kite,” with small square bales selling for five to six dollars per bale. However, he also adds that his equipment, parts, tires and other costs have risen.

“This year we’re making a little bit of profit to help offset the years that we don’t. Agriculture is always a roller coaster,” he states.

Dechert says this summer’s high hay prices aren’t directly reflected in his business, as he operates in a specialty market with a consistent market base.

“I have fielded several calls even today from Texas and Oklahoma, but that’s not something I can deal with, as it’s a one-time market. I’m in a long-term business, with an established market that has priority,” he comments.

Of the acreage in alfalfa this summer, McRea says, “In my local area it appears that 50 percent of alfalfa acres were torn up and either put into corn or wheat, and that’s a major factor in the crop from here to Idaho. Southern California also went from alfalfa to cotton, so that’s the leading factor in hay supplies.”

He also notes that many livestock producers were dependant on Kansas for hay supplies, but that state has been affected by heat.

“It’s not so much the drought as the heat – their second cutting didn’t produce, and a lot of sprinklers were shut off because the hay was going dormant,” he notes.

McRea, who also works with Hay Time Auctions, a two-day time auction also affiliated with Torrington Livestock, works in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, and he says the entire region’s hay is going to Texas. Hay Time Auctions holds an online event every two weeks from the first of June through December, transitioning to an inventory-driven sale in January. The sale operates much like an eBay auction.

“To fill the void, most everyone’s going to the Dakotas, and there’s more and more of that going on, but most of the hay in the Dakotas is in round bales,” he notes.
McRea says he saw the market for feeder hay start at $140 to $150 per ton this summer, and all of that was going to Texas.

“Every week the market seems to inch higher, and sales of feeder hay are going from $155 to $170 per ton now,” he says. “Somewhere along the line there will be a limit to prices – I don’t know how long they can continue to ship feed so far to Texas. There will be a balance somewhere, but I don’t know where.”

The July 27 market report for the most recent Hay Time Auction says 5,219 tons were sold. Supreme alfalfa in 3x4 square bales ranged from $196 to $267, while premium alfalfa in 3x3 bales sold from $190 to $200. Good quality alfalfa in 4x4 and 3x4 bales ranged from $134 to $176. Good quality in large rounds topped out at $131. Utility grades in 4x4 and 3x4 bales started at $116 and topped out at $145.

McRea adds that he thinks feeders will begin to find less hay to purchase, as dairies will soon begin to push to build their inventories and will start to buy lower-quality hay than what they’re accustomed to.

“From speaking with Wyoming producers, I’d say 90 percent of their first cutting has been spoken for, contracted or sold,” says Randall. “Some are holding off on selling because they don’t know what their needs are.”

Because of the great out-of-state demand, Randall says he’s worked with producers this summer who are new to selling hay over long distances.

McRea says he’s seen new people involved with Valley Video and Hay Time from Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, and those range in size from larger hay brokers to smaller individuals.

“Our auction provides an easy outlook for them, and they know where they can find several thousand tons,” he notes. “Our customer list has grown dramatically through this drought, and our auctions are a convenience factor. Most individuals farmers and ranchers usually grow their own hay, and aren’t used to purchasing hay and don’t know where to find it, so they can look at our auctions and ask questions.”

Looking to his second cutting, Richner says he expects the quality to be up from his first cutting, provided the rain doesn’t hit at the wrong times.

“If producers have some extra hay – even last year’s crop would bring a respectable price,” says Randall. “Hay is hay, as long as it’s still in pretty good shape.”

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lander – On Oct. 31, the Lander Library hosted the first of four workshops on hay and pasture renovation. The Popo Agie Conservation District, University of Wyoming Extension and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are sponsoring the seminars.

“For the first session we focused on assessing irrigated hay and pasture land,” said Dave Morneau, Popo Agie Conservation District conservation technician. “Renovation can be anything from a tweak to full on plowing up the current forage coverage.” 

Land concerns

“As producers, we have inherited problems with land when we lease or purchase a new field, and sometimes our neighbor’s weed management isn’t that great,” Morneau explained. “We need to understand why we have the problems and identify solutions. Then we need to set goals for how we would like to see our fields and meadows producing.”

One workshop attendee, Jean Armstrong of Lander, ranches on the North Fork of the Popo Agie River and has summer hay ground with gated pipe and flood irrigation.

“We are plowing up older meadows that are native and seeding alfalfa,” Armstrong said. “We have quite a bit of leafy spurge and are looking to control it as well as increase our hay yield.”

Economics

Dallas Mount, UW Extension Sustainable Management of Rangeland Resources educator, began the first workshop talking about the economics and risk of renovating a non-productive meadow. Mount walked the attending producers through an analysis of the cost of renovation, basing it on the economic unit of a tonnage of hay for an irrigated meadow.

“We need to factor in loss of production in the short-term until the new forage gets established,” Mount said. “Along with this is included temporary fencing to keep livestock out of the area and alternative livestock feed such as a leased pasture or hay costs.”

He explained, “With a cover crop, we could get one ton per acre the first year after renovation, instead of the normal ton and half. So, if we lose a half ton of production, let’s estimate that loss at $100 per acre.”

Other items to factor in are fuel and equipment costs. 

Mount cautioned that when a landowner begins to count depreciation and repairs, it is often cheaper to hire out the tillage, packing and seeding. 

For chemical costs, it is about $40 per acre for the co-op to come out and spray 2,4-D or another herbicide. 

Then landowners need to include fertilizer, which will be applied according to their soil test and often runs $80 an acre. 

For the workshop scenario, an alfalfa grass seed mix was counted as $60 an acre. Mount reminded the producers, “We shouldn’t work for free, so we should charge labor of $20 per acre.”

Failure risks

“Many producers don’t count the risk of failure,” Mount continued. “Some seedings don’t take and need to be repeated the next year. If we renovated a different field every year for 10 years, it would fail two times out of 10. I figure that risk is about $80 per year cost.” 

“There is an insurance product for forage seeding,” he added. “An adjuster comes out at the end of the year to look at the stand to determine loss. If it is less than the cost of risk, it might be worth looking into it.”

The scenario math found it costs an estimated $530 per acre for renovation. A renovation normally lasts 10 years, so it would cost $53 per acre a year. Renovating a meadow may increase yield to 3.5 tons per acre, so $15 per ton each year for the next 10 years will go to pay for the renovation costs. The variables include the 10 years and the amount of forage produced.

The High Plains Ranch Practicum website, found at hpranchpracticum.com, managed by Mount, contains an Excel spreadsheet that has haying costs pre-populated and equipment and hay field establishment worksheets. An economic analysis can also be done similarly to the workshop scenario by writing on a marker board or scratching on a piece of paper. 

Management

“A well-managed pasture should never have to be renovated,” Mount said. “It’s when we’ve become lazy that makes it necessary. By grazing livestock at the right times we can manage forage and weeds. Public lands are more challenging as producers can only be on them during certain times.”

Renovation tools, he added, speed up the process. 

“Instead of waiting six or seven years, we spend $530 per acre in one year to have the same affect,” Mount explained. “Aeration can be accomplished through grazing livestock in small area, and inter-seeding can be done with livestock being turned out at the right time to incorporate it. Economics are challenged by infrastructure, and we can become more efficient by using livestock or hiring.”

The remaining workshops are Fall Grazing Alternatives and Second Crops on Nov. 1; Improved Plant Varieties on Nov. 14; and Planting and Renovation Techniques on Nov. 21. All of the sessions begin at 1 p.m. at the Lander Library.

Melissa Hemken is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


SIDEBAR:
Soil considerations

The second half of the first Hay and Pasture Renovation workshop focused on the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) web soil survey and the importance of knowing the soils in your fields. 

The NRCS web soil survey is found online the easiest by doing a Google search for “NRCS web soil survey.” 

To use the tool, on the main webpage click the green button that reads, “Start WSS.” From there follow the steps to define an area of interest and select to select a particular property. At the end of the process the soils report can be printed or saved as an electronic document on your computer.

“If a landowner does this once,” Dan Mattke, NRCS area resource soils scientist, explains, “They will know what their soils are, as they don’t change. The web soil survey is also handy to check out land before purchasing it or if a producer is considering leasing a hay meadow.”

The web soil survey will shows how soil works within different uses, such as if it is susceptible to compaction if machinery is run over it.

“The soils report will tell landowners what the available water capacity is,” Mattke says, “which can be used to design irrigation as it shows the capacity of the soils to hold water. The percent organic matter section is important for nutrient availability. With higher organic matter percentages, they will have higher water capacity and less susceptibility for erosion. 

“Maybe a producer is trying to grow alfalfa, but it is too wet. They aren’t seeing anything on the surface to show they have a high water table. The web soil survey will provide the water table depth.” 

Mattke says that while developing a soils report can be done entirely online now, producers should feel free to stop in their local conservation district office for assistance.

 

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Neal Sorenson of Powder River Angus in Spotted Horse purchases hay most years.  

“We try to buy good quality hay that doesn’t have any weeds, since we don’t want to bring in weeds to our ranch,” says Sorenson. 

“I am interested in grass hay, which is harder to find.  Most irrigated farms are selling alfalfa, especially if they have pivots,” Sorenson explains. “The irrigated ground produces a lot of alfalfa.” 

“We prefer grass for our beef cattle because it gives a better fill, and they do better on it,” he says.

Alfalfa hay is usually higher priced, unless the producer put it up too dry or wet or it got rained on during harvest. 

Price of hay fluctuates depending on weather, hay supplies and region. 

Distance is another big factor.

Trucking cost

“The truckers who bring our hay like to haul big square bales better than round bales because they are not over-width.  Trucking is a big part of it and may cost as much or almost as much as the hay itself.  They usually charge by the mile, and it’s usually something over five dollars per mile,” Sorenson says.

This may vary with the year and time of year, for diesel costs. It also depends on the weather and how far they have to go. 

“They don’t like to go over a mountain or during bad weather in winter.  Trucks could get stuck in snow or have to chain up to get through bad roads,” he says.

Sorenson continues, “We are set up to feed round bales, but we can also feed square bales if that’s what we end up buying.”

Sourcing hay

Sorenson adds, “My wife Amanda is from Wheatland, which in the southeast part of Wyoming, and she has a friend there who raises hay on irrigated pivots.  That’s usually where we buy our hay.”  

It always helps to know the source of hay, he emphasizes.

“We like to know the quality and usually have the hay tested. Then, we know the relative feed value, protein levels, etc.,” he explains. “I don’t need dairy-quality hay for our beef cattle, but it’s nice to know the feed values.”  

“Usually the seller has the test done, because most people expect it,” Sorenson says.

The test also checks nitrate levels.  

If a person puts up a grain crop for hay, such as millet, on a dry year, the forage might accumulate nitrates, resulting in the possibility of nitrate poisoning in livestock.

“It’s a simple, inexpensive test,” he says.

Sourcing options

For producers who don’t have a convenient source for hay, websites and hay auctions provide a good place to check current prices and find contact information for people selling hay.  

  “The Wyoming Business Council has a website that lists hay for sale, for instance.  This hooks people up with sources for hay,” he says.

“The best situation is to find hay as close as possible, so it doesn’t have to be hauled very far,” Sorenson explains. “If possible, we go and look at it ourselves, then figure out the cost for freight.  There is an irrigated valley close to us, and it would be handy to buy hay from there, but I know it’s full of leafy spurge. We don’t buy any hay out of that valley, even though it’s much closer than other hay for sale.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Basin – Having spent 25 years cubing alfalfa and selling his product to markets as far away as Japan, Fritz Schweitzer, past president of the National Hay Association, knows where to find a niche.
    Speaking at the February Big Horn Basin Forage and Irrigated Pasture Expo in Basin, Fritz said his hay project grew faster than he could handle it, but he learned to manage it and to grow it into a successful business.
    “After I got into the hay business I attended the National Hay Convention at Purdue University and when those guys found out where I was from and what I was doing, they told me they really wanted western hay,” he said. “We live in a dry climate here and can put up some of the prettiest hay you’ve ever seen.”
    “Years ago, when I got started in the business, a friend of mine said he didn’t think I’d make it unless I learned to be a little dishonest as a hay dealer,” noted Schweitzer. “But I found through there’s some great integrity amongst people in the hay industry I’ve worked with.”
    “I had hay cubes for sale the first year I was in business and a trader from Billings said he needed a container load of cubes to send to Japan,” he said. “I was a new guy and already had a market in Japan, and that’s how I got started in international marketing. I ended up marketing to 19 countries.”
    At one point in time, Schweitzer approached a Wisconsin hay dealer about shipping his cubed alfalfa to the state. “The fellow thought I was crazy wanting to ship alfalfa to Wisconsin, but we reached a point where I had shipped over 400 loads to him.”
    Schweitzer said there’s currently a farmer in Powell raising timothy hay and marketing it to racetracks in the East. “I know he’s getting at least $140 per ton, and if you add the freight to that hay, those horses eat pretty good.”
    “I don’t know if horses like that timothy any better than my high-protein alfalfa, but the trainer likes to feed it and so that’s what the horse gets to eat and that’s what you and I get to sell,” he said.
    He described timothy hay as having a really soft head, stem and leaves and being “pretty hay.”
    “The buyers really like to have the alfalfa/clover/timothy mix, but people in hell want ice water, too,” he quipped.
    “I really have stressed in my sales and marketing the protein analysis of my alfalfa,” said Schweitzer, remembering a trip in which he visited dairy producers in El Salvador. “I went down and talked protein to them and pre-shipped a container of alfalfa down. I stayed with them and we fed a herd of Holstein cows in milk production that had been bought in Wisconsin and shipped down.”
    He said the producers weren’t getting the production they wanted from the cows, but the way in which they were feeding them was unique. “They had a young boy with a machete on his belt and two oxen and a cart with wooden wheels. He’d go out to cut grass all day and he’d come back at night with a haystack on wheels and that’s what they were feeding them, and there wasn’t three percent protein in the whole wagonload.”
    After feeding the cows Schweiter’s alfalfa cubes for 30 days, the cows gained three pounds of weight and increased their butterfat content to more than double what they had to begin with.
    “In this modern world there are new management tools and machinery to use. If you can budget that machinery out with the marketing of the alfalfa, I think you ought to go for it,” said Schweitzer of producing high-quality hay. “Quality production makes your mechanical systems most cost-effective.”
    “Premium alfalfa needs to be clean alfalfa,” he said. “The buyers would like for you to cut your alfalfa in late bud or early bloom – they’re not interested in seeing purple flowers. The buyer wants protein. If he wants flowers, he’ll go to the florist shop.”
    “The flowers aren’t bad, the cows will eat them,” he added, “but if you’ve got flowers you’ve got large stems. If the ratio between stems and leaves - which are where the protein is - is off balance, the protein goes way down. That’s why they want an early cut of alfalfa.”
    Schweitzer said that although harvesting and marketing premium hay is the goal, there has to be a market for the other hay. “You can’t produce all your hay to look pretty. There’s got to be a market for off-quality hay, and I found markets.”
    One such market was the Ringling Brothers Circus, which wanted coarse hay with a lot of roughage to feed to their elephants. “When we’d get a load of rough hay I’d call Ringling Brothers. Occasionally they’d ask for some bags of cubes for llamas and maybe the next trip I’d send some bales of bedding straw and sometimes I’d go up into Montana and bag sawdust - and we literally bagged it with scoop shovels - for their lions and tigers. You never know where there’s a market for our products.”
    Schweitzer also said he bought a bunch of Mexican roping steers that he’d lease to cowboys in the summer and in the winter he’d feed them waste hay.
    “There’s markets for all kinds of hay,” he said. “The buyers will not pay a premium price if you don’t have a premium alfalfa.”
    “There is an unlimited market for hay,” he continued. “There’s a drought somewhere in the nation every year and if you stay in touch with USDA they’ll tell you where they’re needing alfalfa really bad.”
    “I really had a lot of fun in the industry,” he summarized. “I traveled 19 countries and all over the United States. When you’re young and energetic, there are all kinds of things you can accomplish.”