By Tam Moore
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture's semi-annual report on hay stocks comes out in a couple of weeks, the findings will be no surprise to Western farmers or the dairymen and livestock owners they serve. This is a tight year for hay.
Nationally, and in California, the total hay acreage increased, but the weather took the edge off yields and downgraded large quantities of hay. In California, acreage went up 6 percent, partly in answer to "off the chart" alfalfa prices in 2005. There was a 1 million-acre increase in national hay acres harvested, from 61.6 million to 62.6 million.
What the hay stock report will show is a decline in unsold hay stored for the winter. And Seth Hoyt, a veteran hay reporter who is now a senior analyst with California Agricultural Statistics Services, said that's pretty much the same for all Western states.
"Yields were lower, with the wet spring. Then there was the July heat wave that cut production again," Hoyt said as he summarized what producers and brokers have told him.
Hoyt generalized because he's one of the contributors to the Dec. 1 estimate of hay stocks that the USDA issues every year, and statistical work on the estimates continues almost until the data are released.
In real numbers, with the increase in acreage, total hay production was up in California and in Oregon. It took big hits in Columbia Basin and Idaho areas.
While alfalfa prices took a significant drop in California, compared with 2005, they remained steady in most Pacific Northwest markets.
Looking back on the season, the long period of spring rain did a double number in several hay production areas. Ample moisture produced luxuriant growth going into the first cutting, but wet ground kept machinery out of the fields, and over-mature hay resulted. It's the stems cut just at bloom that test highest, and most years the first cutting is source of much of the season's higher-grading hay.
Hoyt said it appears most of the high-quality hay sold out early, as it became available. For the inventory report, that puts most of the Supreme and Premium grade hay in the barns of dairymen who were able to locate stocks.
Good hay, normally reserved for beef animals and dry cattle, represents most of the unsold forage in the Dec. 1 inventory.
"There's much more low to medium than high quality" in barns, Hoyt said.
As the USDA's market news report for California noted last week, there's speculation in the hay trade about how high feed grain prices - corn continues to be in the $3.35 to $3.38 a bushel range at Kansas City - will impact hay markets. Corn prices, up $1 a bushel since fall harvest began, are at 10-year highs.