Winter on the Horizon, Hay on the Market


By Lilly Platts

After a particularly wet spring and slow start to haying season in Montana, supply and prices are following a normal trajectory before calving and heavy feeding begin.  While there is a large quantity of hay that was rained on, this moisture allowed for high enough yields to offset any loss in quantity.  However, nutrient density may be lower due to the wet spring and summer.

According to the most recent USDA hay report, “Good” quality alfalfa and alfalfa-grass-mix hay is selling for between $110 and $180 per ton.  Dairy quality hay supply has started to tighten as it moves to the midwest, which is a normal trend for early winter.

Dr. Jeff Mosley, Montana State University Extension Range Management Specialist, said even though the moisture was frustrating, it allowed for high yield.

“The abundant moisture across much of our state last summer definitely made it difficult to put up hay, but if you’re going to face a problem, that’s a way better problem to have than too little moisture.  As the saying goes, even if rainfall doesn’t come at the preferred times or in the preferred amounts, never complain about getting rain in Montana agriculture,” Dr. Mosley said.

He called the abundant moisture “both a blessing and a curse.”  While it helped to provide above average yields, nutritive quality was lost as wet hay laid cut, waiting to be baled.  Nutrients “leach out while waiting for hay to dry,” Dr. Mosley explained.  He also cautioned that there may be more moldy hay in stacks than typical as some hay may have been baled with higher moisture content than desired.

“One thing to watch when feeding hay this winter is the amount of sweet clover in each bale.  This past summer was a bumper year for sweet clover,” Dr. Mosley said.  “If the sweet clover hay gets moldy, it becomes toxic to cattle, especially younger cattle.  It’s a good idea to alternate the feeding of yellow sweet clover hay with another kind of hay at one or two-week intervals or blend together the yellow sweet clover hay and the other hay.”

Dr. Dennis Cash, Montana State University Department of Animal and Range Sciences professor emeritus, said many hay buying decisions will take place over the next two months.

“By now, many ranchers in all corners of the state have already had to feed some hay this fall.  Two considerations are that a producer’s hay supply was likely lower than normal, and also weather-delayed or rain damaged hay might be lower quality than normal.  So, the immediate needs are to calculate an honest forage supply inventory, and to have hay quality analyses run – last trimester and post-calving nutritional demands for cows might exceed the 2019 hay crop.”

Making smart decisions about when to buy hay can be difficult due to the timing of fall weaning and planning for the new year.

“Hay prices will edge up, so take care of any deficit sooner rather than later,” Dr. Cash said.  “Hay prices are generally lowest every August.  Unfortunately, most Montana ranchers tend to make hay-buying decisions in December or January, after they know their pasture situation and cash flow from marketing their calves.  So, they sometimes pay higher prices for mediocre hay.”

Prices and supply do vary across the state, and the early winter storms that hit Northern Montana may put extra pressure on ranchers in the region to purchase additional hay.  However, November and December have been open throughout most of the state compared to the early snow and cold weather the state experienced in 2018, allowing many to continue maintaining cattle on grass.

Two of the main outlets for buying and selling hay in the state are the Montana Hay Hotline, hosted by the Montana Department of Agriculture, and Craigslist.  As of December 6, there were well over 100 listings of hay for sale on the Montana Hay Hotline website, the majority of which is alfalfa or grass-alfalfa mix.  There is also an abundance of hay listings on Craigslist, all of which vary widely on quantity, quality, and price.  To get an idea of hay prices in your region, visit agr.mt.gov/Hay-Hotline.  The Montana State University Forage Extension Program is another useful resource for tips on hay testing, storage, and more.

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