Wet, cool fall reduces availability of dairy-quality hay

Nov 13, 2009
by DTN
Wet, cool fall reduces availability of dairy-quality hay

The unseasonably wet and cool fall may leave dairy producers scrambling to find their supplies of dairy-quality hay for winter.

Just as farmers have struggled to get row crops out of the field because of the rain and snow this fall, alfalfa growers also have found it difficult to get their last cuttings of alfalfa dried and put up, especially with the quality needed for dairy cattle, according to Dr. Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy and forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“While the total tonnage of hay produced in the 2009 growing season is fairly average, the supply of dairyquality hay will be in much shorter supply this year than we’ve seen in a number of seasons,” Anderson said.

Surprisingly, even though dairy-quality hay supplies are down throughout the region, prices of dairy-quality hay are weaker than last year. There is a reasonable premium between dairyquality hay and feedlot-quality hay, but the top-end price is weaker than what the market has seen in the last few years, he said.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the economic stress dairy producers are under with lower milk prices,” he said. “There just isn’t extra capital available to pay the prices that have been normal for the last two to three years.”

The trend for some cashstrapped dairy producers is to use slightly lower-quality alfalfa to maintain fiber needs in cattle diets while using ethanol byproducts such as dried distillers grain to maintain protein and digestible fibers.

“There’s been a large change in some areas of the country to corn silage that began more than a decade ago. That has lowered amounts of alfalfa into dairy rations,” Anderson said. “I don’t think there’s been any recent major shifts with alfalfa quantities. But the byproduct availability has been a major competitor in dairy diets that has influenced changes.”

Still, dairy producers who need to find alfalfa supplies for the winter had better buy sooner than later, Anderson advised.

“Supplies will run out much sooner this year than in a long time,” he said. “In fact, most dairy-quality hay is already spoken for.”

However, worries should be few for beef producers since alfalfa supplies should be plentiful.

“Beef producers may have to use hay that has been rained on or is not in as good condition as in past years. But there are ample supplies, and the quantity is adequate,” he said.

Anderson also said that due to difficulty harvesting the last cutting of alfalfa, coupled with quality issues, a fair amount is being grazed.

Although the moisture has been frustrating and has left many harvest-anxious farmers at a standstill waiting for fields to dry, the added moisture—especially in the western portions of alfalfa-growing regions—will help a lot of dry-land yields.

And the additional moisture should improve subsoil moisture levels next spring as well.

“There are certainly going to be areas that should start next spring with better subsoil moisture than they did this spring,” Anderson said. “Winter weather could make a lot of changes in that, but at least as of right now, it looks promising from that standpoint.

“Most alfalfa went into winter in pretty good shape,” he said.

Anderson cautioned that fields that were cut this fall during such a late time frame may have plants that were a little more stressed than normal going into winter.

“Alfalfa growers that did cuttings in late September or early October may want to be on the lookout next spring for any stand thinning that winter may have caused,” he said. — DTN