Idaho hay stocks are bucking the national trend but dairy producers may still have trouble finding quality hay.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Idaho had 660,000 tons of hay stored on farms on May 1, up from 510,000 tons last year. Idaho is one of the few western states that saw an uptick in hay stocks compared to 2017.
Nationwide, hay stocks are down 36 percent to a total of 15.7 million tons. USDA forecasters attributed the decline to lower hay production in 2017 coupled with larger cattle inventories and dry conditions across the southern U.S. which extended supplemental feeding periods. Snow storms across the Northern Plains also ate into hay stacks.
While the numbers indicate hay stocks are increasing, many dairy producers say that hay supplies are tight. They were hoping to secure qualify first cutting hay, but rain in late May is dampening those hopes.
Glenn Shewmaker talked to a hay grower in the western Magic Valley who cut his crop more than a week ago to make dairy-quality hay. That hay has turned black in the windrow thanks to frequent rain storms that did not allow it to dry out. Shewmaker is the University of Idaho Extension forage specialist based in Twin Falls.
Rick Pearson, who farms near Buhl, green chopped all of his first cutting this year and was able to work around the rain storms. He started a little earlier than normal, thanks to warm weather in early May that helped push the crop along.
Even though tonnage looks like it will be pretty good this year, first cutting is proving to be a struggle. Much of the hay in the Magic Valley was in the bud stage when the storms began rolling in. With the height of the canopy, growers will have to wait for several sunny days in a row to let that canopy dry out before cutting it.
Unfortunately, those warm sunny days will also prompt the plants to bloom, pushing the crop past dairy quality standards.
Pearson has talked to dairies who are having trouble getting dairy quality hay and that’s starting to show up in hay prices. Dairies are paying around $180 per ton for dairy quality hay delivered, up from $140 to $150 a ton at this time last year.
“Generally first cutting is a little higher,” Pearson said. “Everyone wants fresh, good quality first cutting. But they’re having trouble finding that this year.”
Not only is the weather making dairy quality a hard-to-find commodity this spring, but some growers are also selling hay into California. According to the USDA numbers, California has only 140,000 tons on hand, about half of the 2015-17 average.
Even though higher prices are welcome to start the season, Pearson isn’t expecting prices to stay up. Milk prices are still at or below cost-of-production levels. Dairies will buy hay as needed rather than stockpiling it.
Demand for hay is expected to remain strong. Across the U.S., cow inventory is up 1 percent, compared to the previous year. Idaho’s January 1 cow inventory matched the national trend. Beef cow numbers were up 2 percent to 510,000 head while the number of dairy cows milking held steady at 600,000 head.