By DOUG SCHMITZ
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Last year’s drought that left a huge swath of moderate- to severely-parched fields across the Midwest in its wake had farmers wondering whether there would be enough forage this past winter and on into 2018 planting.
While farm analysts last fall remained optimistic, 2017’s forage supplies fell short of expectations.
“The drought took its toll on Iowa grass hay production in 2017, with production down 18 percent from a year ago,” said Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation director of research and commodity services. “Alfalfa production was up in Iowa by about 9 percent, offsetting some of the decline in other hay production.”
For example, despite south-central Iowa and parts of southeast Iowa having minimal summer rains and short supplies of forage last year, northeast Iowa had ample rains, however, and generally has had good hay supplies.
“It helps that the USDA released the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) for haying in a number of Iowa counties” in 2017, he said. He added producers who were able to take advantage of it should have had enough forage to get them through the winter.
According to the USDA Jan. 12 Crop Production 2017 Summary, production of all dry hay in 2017 was estimated at 131 million tons, down 3 percent from the 2016 total. Area harvested was estimated at 53.8 million acres, up 1 percent from 2016.
In addition, the average yield in 2017, at 2.44 tons per acre, was down 0.08 ton from 2016, with all hay harvested acres hitting the second lowest levels since 1908 (the lowest was in 2016).
“Nationally, both alfalfa and grass hay production were down (from 2016), with some of the largest declines in production in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa,” Miller said.
“This is leading to somewhat higher hay prices as producers in those areas are bidding up local supplies and making efforts to supplement local supplies with supplies from further away,” he added.
In Iowa, beef cow numbers were up about 25,000 head from a year earlier, and dairy cow numbers were 5,000 head higher than a year ago, Miller added.
“This adds some to the winter forage needs of the state, although in some of the areas which were hit hardest by drought, more acres were chopped for silage to help cover winter forage needs,” he said.
Clarke McGrath, Iowa State University (ISU) agronomist, and extension and on-farm research coordinator for ISU’s Iowa Soybean Research Center (ISRC), said the weather was favorable for turning cows out on stalk fields last fall, which helped many cattle producers.
“Much like the year we had (in 2017), forage supplies are all over the place,” he said. “In areas where we had drought, while the first cutting was great, subsequent cuttings were pretty slim.
Mild, early winter helped with extended grazing of pasture
Joe Sellers, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension beef specialist, said while there was a shortage of hay supplies in much of Iowa last year, the mild, early winter helped with extended grazing of pasture and crop residue.
“There was more corn silage harvested, which will help a lot of producers,” he said.
However, with the drought stress the state had in some areas last year, McGrath said alfalfa and pasture could be under stress this spring as a result of 2017’s dry summer.
“Rains fell later (last) season in some regions, but not everyone got enough in time to help send the pasture and hay into winter in good shape,” he said. (Some alfalfa fields in northeast Iowa had already shown signs of winterkill.)
In addition, Sellers said forage supplies for 2018 are still below-average in soil moisture in southern Iowa.
“We have less pasture and hay acres due to several years of land conversion to row crops, so it is not uncommon to be short,” he said.
Although feed supplies were tight through the winter months, Sellers said the corn silage filled some of the gaps.
“There will be many producers who will feed corn stover and corn co-products like distillers grains if hay is not available,” he said.
According to the USDA Jan. 12 Crop Production 2017 Summary, the USDA had significantly reduced the U.S. hay yield per acre for 2017, compared to earlier estimates, based on U.S. producer surveys. That decline represented a 1 percent drop in 2017’s national production estimate.
At 131.5 million tons, U.S. total hay production was the smallest since 2012’s drought-devastated crop, and was the third lowest since 1988. The USDA said hay stocks, as of Dec. 1, 2017, were at 86.2 million tons nationally, which were smaller than expected and a stock level that was the second lowest since 1976.
Moreover, U.S. hay stocks were 10 percent below a year earlier and the lowest since Dec. 1, 2012, when severe drought limited hay production and increased late summer and fall usage. The USDA added year-over-year declines in stocks were associated with states impacted by drought, wildfires, and hay destroyed by hurricanes (flooding).
The USDA said the arctic air mass that settled over much of the U.S. in January brought significant snow to southern states, likely causing much more hay to be fed to beef cattle than typical.
Combining that with a cowherd that is larger than a year ago, the Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC) estimated U.S. hay stocks to begin the new-crop year (as of May 1, 2018) as the smallest since 2013.
Many Midwest states experienced similar declines in hay stocks
Jerry Lindquist, Michigan State University Extension grazing educator, said of the Jan. 12 report that many Midwest states experienced similar declines in hay stocks, with Wisconsin being down 17.2 percent, Iowa down 14 percent, South Dakota down 10.8 percent and North Dakota down 28.7 percent.
“The states to our south may have more hay available as Ohio hay stocks are up 18.7 percent and Indiana stocks are up 35.4 percent,” he said.
In addition, national alfalfa hay prices have posted year-over-year increases since the current crop-year began last May, and averaged $148 per ton last November, up $18 year-over-year.
As of last November, the USDA said the national “Other Hay” price was $118 per ton, down $2 from a year earlier, with hay price increases likely this year, compared to 2017.
Ed Kordick, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation commodity services manager, agreed, adding current high prices and general lack of supply remain.
“(Hay) is $40 more per ton than year ago, but the market always is moving and comments about the late winter making it more difficult is what I have read,” he said. “The cold March and April has made pastures very slow in developing growth this year and producers have fed a lot more hay late into spring than normal.”
Lindquist said hay prices have been gradually moving higher as demand grows and knowledge of the short hay supply became known.
“The big movers were the low-quality grass and legume-mixed round baled hays that were selling for as low as $65 to $85 per ton in mid-summer,” he said. “They now have moved up to $90 to $115 per ton.
He said most mid-quality alfalfa and alfalfa/grass hays are selling for $120 to $150 per ton, depending on their quality and the type of bale package, with the high-quality alfalfa hays selling for $150 to $200 per ton on average.
“These prices may move higher over the next few months, depending upon the severity of the winter weather, since livestock in colder temperatures eat more hay, and upon how many farms are still in need of extra hay,” he said.
“These prices may hold because the corn silage harvest was sufficient in most areas, grain prices are relatively low and can offset some of the hay in the ration, and because livestock and dairy farm profits are low to non-existent, and trimming the feed budget is a goal of many,” he added.
2018 hay crop forecast for second lowest acreage in 112 years
Released March 29, the USDA’s annual Prospective Plantings Report said this year’s hay crop is forecast to yield the second lowest acreage harvest in 112 years.
The USDA report estimated 53.73 million acres of hay are projected to be harvested in 2018, a decrease of 58,000 acres from 2017, with the 2018 acreage projection at 245,000 acres more than the total acreage harvested in 2016 (which recorded the lowest hay harvest since 1906), an increase of 0.4 percent.
Among U.S. states, Ohio is projected to yield the second largest increase in hay average harvested, with 13.2 percent, while Indiana will have the second largest decrease in hay acreage harvested, with 8.6 percent, the USDA said. In addition, the USDA projected all-time hay harvest acreage lows in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
Moreover, the USDA report didn’t show any specific planting acreages for forage like alfalfa or corn silage. However, the USDA said 6.71 million acres of alfalfa and 2.6 million acres of corn silage were harvested in 2017.
The USDA also said 55.07 million tons of alfalfa hay were harvested in 2017, an average of 3.32 tons per acre, with corn silage yielding 128.36 million tons in 2017, an average of 19.9 tons per acre.
In Illinois, producers intended to harvest 470,000 acres of all hay in 2018, down 4 percent from last year, according to the report. In Indiana, hay acres intended for harvest, at 530,000 acres, is 9 percent below the 580,000 acres harvested in 2017.
In Iowa, farmers expect to harvest 1.1 million acres of all dry hay for the 2018 crop year, 20,000 acres more than harvested in 2017.
In Kentucky, farmers intended to harvest 2.1 million acres of all hay, down 80,000 acres from 2017. In Michigan, all dry hay, at 920,000 acres intended for harvest, is up 20,000 acres from last year.
In Ohio, hay acreage for 2018 is estimated at 1.2 million acres, up 140,000 acres, which includes alfalfa, grain and all other types of hay. In Tennessee, farmers intended to harvest 1.65 million acres of all hay, down slightly from 2017.
Dale Leslein, manager of the weekly hay auction at the Dyersville Sales Co., in Dyersville, Iowa, said in his April 11 hay auction market report, “Today’s market was on fire with a lot of buyers and everyone wanting or needing hay pretty badly.”
“The weather has been the major player in driving hay prices up and hopefully, it can’t get any worse,” he said. “The bad news is we are seeing many mixed loads, which is a good indication sellers are cleaning up and are about done for the year. Normally, we are five weeks away from new crop, but it looks like we will be later than that.”