It’s been a record-setting year for hay prices in Iowa. Large square bales of premium-quality alfalfa hay are bringing $240 to $250 per ton, and good-quality alfalfa is ranging between $185 and $230. Big round bales of grass hay have topped out at $210 per ton, and are averaging between $150 and $200 per ton. Even Conservation Reserve Program hay, including thistles, has been bringing as much as $180 per ton.
“Supplies are tight, and it’s all weather-related,” says Dale Leslein, manager of Dyersville Sales Co., a weekly hay auction in northeast Iowa. Hay prices usually decline in summer. But the Dyersville auction has had high prices every month since June. “We’re having the highest monthly prices since we started our hay auction 20 years ago,” he says. “We’ve never seen hay prices this high for this long.”
Too much wet weather
Many producers in 2018 lost a cutting of hay due to weather. Quality, as well as quantity, has been adversely affected. Quality varies, but there is a shortage of high-quality dairy hay in the Midwest.
“While it was too wet in Iowa for good hay production, it was also wet in the Dakotas and Nebraska,” Leslein says. “They got their hay baled dry, but it wasn’t baled in a timely manner. For all these reasons, we’re seeing tremendous premiums paid for the better-quality hay.”
The Dyersville auction is one of the Midwest’s largest. Hay comes in from other states, especially northern Missouri. But this year, drought conditions cut Missouri’s hay production. In fact, northern Missouri dairy and beef producers are buying hay. “A lot of hay has been shipped down to Missouri this year, a massive hay lift,” Leslein says.
Hay prices expected to stay strong
While hay prices are high now, they may climb even higher a year from now. “Many of the new seedings that were planted in spring 2018 are pretty well wiped out, drowned,” Leslein says. “Adding to the problem, many established stands of alfalfa turned yellow this fall, suffocating from too much moisture in the soil. We began seeing leaves fall off alfalfa plants in some fields. I think we’re shaping up for a pretty hefty winterkill of alfalfa, and we could have very limited hay supplies next year.”
Alfalfa needs plenty of water to grow and produce high yield, but this year had too much water in many areas. “Alfalfa doesn’t work well in monsoon rain conditions and that’s what we’ve had since mid-July,” he notes.
By mid-November, Dyersville accumulated 52 inches of rain since July 1. Normally, the average annual rainfall there is 35 inches. “This year every time you turn around, it’s raining,” Leslein says. “When rain keeps coming, the ground can only absorb so much; then water has to stand in the field or run off. Hayfields are drowning when that occurs.”
Supplies tight in other states
Leslein has received calls from people who normally have hay for sale, but now they want to buy hay. Some want to buy it for the 2019-20 feeding season. “They are afraid too many hayfields are largely wiped out,” Leslein says.
Hay supplies throughout the country are tight. “If dairy or beef producers need some hay, now is a good time to get some bought,” he says. “I think when we get toward spring, people who have hay for sale are going to be hesitant to sell hay until they see the condition of their alfalfa stands. I think hay prices could be substantially higher as we move into springtime, unless the weather changes dramatically and gives us a mild, open winter.”
Testing hay pays off
Iowa State University Extension beef specialists suggest cattle producers supplement winter hay supplies with distillers dried grain or other feedstuffs if running short of hay. Grazing cover crops is an option to stretch a tight hay supply.
While hay prices are high and supplies are short, there is a bright spot. With the rain, pasture conditions are much improved across Iowa. Areas of southern Iowa had the opposite problem compared to northern Iowa: not enough rain this summer. Much of south-central and southeast Iowa suffered drought conditions and pastures dried up.
Dry weather can also adversely affect hay quality, as well as quantity. “It’s a good idea to sample your hay and have it tested to make sure gestating cows are getting the nutrition they need,” says ISU’s Chris Clark. “You can supplement the hay with something like dry distillers grain, if needed.”