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Hay supplies almost gone; outlook for 2013 crop poor

A poor 2012 hay crop followed by a late spring has nearly exhausted the Upper Midwest's hay supply, forcing many ranchers to make tough decisions that can include selling livestock.

"Our hay supplies are extremely tight and depleted. And even if you can find hay (to buy), it's extremely expensive," said Dar Geiss, a Pierz producer and president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

In western South Dakota, where drought is particularly severe, "There's not a lot of hay piles left in the country anymore," said Adele Harty, cow-calf field specialist for South Dakota State University Extension at the Rapid City Regional Extension Center.

With hay so short, some producers have sold some or all of their herd. Other hard-pressed ranchers have put animals into pastures even though grass there isn't as advanced as it should be, she says.

Drought across most of the Upper Midwest last summer cut sharply into production of both grass hay and alfalfa, its high-protein cousin that's widely fed to livestock. The poor harvest was magnified by the late spring, which delayed the growth of grass in pastures.

Normally, ranchers in the Upper Midwest begin feeding a little less hay in late spring, when grass begins growing in pastures. This year, with spring coming so late, grass began growing later and more slowly than it normally does. That's increased the need for hay, which already was in short supply.

Geiss estimates Minnesota ranchers, in general, will need to feed hay two or three weeks longer than normal because of the late spring.

Higher hay prices

Hay prices have soared because of tight supplies.

At the Rock Valley Hay Auction in northwest Iowa, a large square bale of premium alfalfa is selling for about $265, up from $165 a year ago and $115.50 two years ago.

Rock Valley Hay Auction still has hay for its customers, with most of the hay coming from northern North Dakota, northwest Minnesota and southern Canada, where the 2012 hay crop was relatively good, said Paul McGill, who owns and manages the Rock Valley business.

Area cattle producers would appreciate a late fall, which would allow cattle to graze longer and reduce the amount of hay that's needed next winter, Geiss said.

Cattle producers also would benefit if the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed more grazing and haying of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, he said.