Production of hay, including alfalfa, in the top-18 hay-producing states has been declining rapidly, according to USDA’s recently released Annual Crop Production Summary. In fact, supplies of all hay are at the lowest level since 1957, according to USDA.
"Lower stocks equate to lower production due to both lower acreage and the drought," says Dan Undersander, agronomist with the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "If prices stay high, it will encourage people to stay in hay, but if prices fall, they’ll move more acreage into corn."
Last year, hay growers harvested 79.6 million tons of all-hay, down 11 percent from 2011’s 89.5 million tons and off 21 percent from 2010’s 100.2 million tons. Declines in acreage occurred across most of the Corn Belt, including Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.
All alfalfa production, which includes baled alfalfa, greenchop, and haylage, in 2012 also fell. Area harvested in the top-18 alfalfa-producing states slipped 5 percent from 13.8 million acres in 2011 to 13.1 million last year. And 2012’s harvested acreage was nearly 10 percent lower than 2010’s 14.5 million acres. Total alfalfa production fell 19 percent from 52.7 million tons in 2011 to 42.5 million tons last year. Last year’s production is a 24 percent decline from 2010’s 56 million tons.
Yield per acre of all alfalfa has also been dropping, from 3.85 tons in 2010 to 3.81 tons in 2011 to 3.24 tons last year. Thus, over the past two years, yield has plunged more than 15 percent.
"This winter will be a reasonably mild one," says Undersander. A mild winter will help keep a ceiling on demand and limit the drawdown in stocks. With stocks a low as they’ve been in decades and drought continuing through much of the Midwest and high plains, livestock producers and hay growers will need to produce as much hay and haylage as they possibly can early in the season, Undersander notes.
Make Hay Early
Undersander recommends that grazers put 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen on each acre of pastureland this spring. That, he ways, will yield the equivalent of an extra ton or two of forage per acre that animals can graze.
"Hay prices will likely stay high for the coming year," Undersander adds. He advises dairy producers to return to the historical practice of having six months worth of baled hay in the barn in addition to a full-year’s worth of need. "It's a good practice and dairies should return to that practice," he adds.