An unusually warm and dry spring continues to haunt local hay and cattle producers, with hay fields yielding lower tonnage per acre and rangeland showing signs of stress.
“We didn’t get any help from Mother Nature,” said Chris Knudson, who said that production on his irrigated hay fields was about 75% of normal. “You just can’t get it watered as evenly as some good rains.”
Knudson said that typically he would expect to get a first cutting from the meadow bottoms on their dryland, but with spring rainfall barely 50% of normal, this year there was nothing to cut.
“The only thing we really got for first cutting was what was irrigated. So that is kind of rough,” Knudson said. “Typically, we do put some hay up from the meadow bottoms. This year there was none. The neighbors didn’t get any either.”
It is a refrain that is familiar to Jason Watts, owner of HayWerks, a local hay brokerage. Watts said that the first cutting is down 30% to 40% in Johnson County. That is comparable to what is being reported throughout the eastern portion of the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June 30 crop progress report.
A loss of 30% to 40% represents millions of dollars of lost feed. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, Johnson County producers harvested 71,000 tons of alfalfa or alfalfa-mix hay and another 24,000 tons of other hay. The latest USDA price report lists alfalfa hay selling for $175 a ton in Wyoming; other hay sold for $145 per ton in May.
In a typical year, Knudson would plan on using all of the first cutting to feed their stock. Portions of the second and third cuttings would be sold as small square bales for high-grade horse hay, but because the first cutting was light, he anticipates needing to hold onto a good portion of the second and third cuttings to feed his own livestock.
Other hay producers face a double whammy of reduced tonnage and hay that got rained on.
“The recent rain was welcomed by many cattlemen and hay growers, but several folks had hay crops that had just been cut and is now considered damaged hay with lower-quality feed value for the livestock,” Watts said.
While the rain may have been enough to damage cut hay, it was not enough to provide relief from the drought. All of north-central and northeastern Wyoming is rated as experiencing moderate drought conditions with the center of Johnson County rated as experiencing severe drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report.
Blaine Horn, rangeland extension educator, said that rangeland is showing the stress of the drought. Last week’s rains greened things up and may cause a little bit of growth, but Horn said it is possible that cattle producers may need to start feeding hay earlier in the fall or maybe even in late summer.
“If the weather pattern does not change by midsummer, we will likely transport several thousand tons of hay back into Johnson County from surrounding states,” Watts said. “It’s going to be hard on the producers and the cattle this fall and winter if we do not get rain and soon.”
Already some cattle producers are thinking ahead to that possibility, Knudson said, and hay prices are reflecting those concerns, jumping 20% to 25% in the last week.
“Cattle prices are down and hay prices are up,” Knudson said. “It’s the start of a good country song.”