Dwindling Hay Supply Means Strong Prices

Published on: 11:59AM May 13, 2013

As hay stocks decline, some Central region dairy farmers are sacrificing milk production in lieu of stretching their feed supply.

It certainly has been a difficult year. Farm profitability in most cases has been very slim, with the national average milk-to-feed ratio ranging from a low of 1.29 in July to high of 1.73 in both October and November. Despite this range, profitability did not improve very much.

On top of this, many farms were short on feed due to the drought requiring further cash outlay over and above what they would normally have had to pay for feed. The cold, wet spring this year will delay harvest of winter forage and first cutting hay in the Midwest and Northeast, further taxing feed supply.

One result of this delay has been the reformulating of rations to find substitutes for feed supply in order to stretch inventory. Reports from milk handlers in the Central region are that milk receipts are not steadily increasing as expected. Farmers are sacrificing milk production in lieu of stretching feed supply. Another difficulty many Upper Midwest farmers are dealing with is severe winter kill of the hay crop. Many farms in Wisconsin have 50% or more loss of alfalfa fields, requiring alternative planting decisions to be made. This certainly is not welcomed and adding insult to injury.

Hay supplies have been dwindling as more hay land is being sacrificed to row crops. Drought conditions have reduced production, leaving hay supply significantly reduced.

USDA reported U.S. hay stocks as of May 1 at 14.156 million tons, down 34% from a year ago. By comparison, hay stocks on May 1, 1989, after the severe drought the previous summer, were 17.507 million tons. In fact, hay stocks as of May 1 are the lowest since 1950 when USDA began recording them.

When looking at the state breakdown of hay stocks, there are some interesting changes over the past year. Eight states bolstered their hay stocks from last year. These states were California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. The state of Texas showed the largest increase, with hay stocks growing 700,000 tons to a total of 1.650 million tons, which are the largest hay stocks of any state. However, supply declines were severe in many states, with some falling as much as 50% or more. South Dakota showed the largest decline, with stocks falling from 2.4 million tons on May 1, 2012, to current stocks of 850,000 tons.

While dealing with a significant reduction in hay inventory and increasing prices this past year, hay exports continue to grow. Current hay exports account for 4% of the nation’s annual production. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have been our traditional buyers, with China, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia recently importing more U.S. supply.

Hay prices have risen significantly in recent years, with alfalfa price reaching $200 per ton for the first time in October 2011. Since then, price has been at or above that level 13 times with the past nine consecutive months above $200. A record high price was set in March at $219 per ton.

Hay acreage and production has suffered due to strong grain prices and drought, and this likely will not change anytime soon. The bright spot could be that in time production of hay could increase the interest of farmers to again plant more acres for income, erosion control and demand.

Upcoming reports:

- Global Dairy Trade auction on May 15
- April Milk Production report on May 20
- April Cold Storage report on May 22
- Advanced Federal Order Class I price on May 22

Robin Schmahl is a commodity broker and owner of AgDairy LLC, a full-service commodity brokerage firm located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 877-256-3253 or through their website at www.agdairy.com.

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