March 14, 2008

With spring just around the corner, many livestock producers are counting down the days until they can get their livestock off hay and back on pasture.

A spring freeze followed by drought made producing an abundance of hay in 2007 difficult, and because of drought conditions in other parts of the United States in 2006 much of Kentucky’s excess hay that year was sold to other locations. This set the stage for low supplies going into the winter of 2007.

Hay supplies this past winter were some of the lowest in decades in Kentucky. As a result, many farmers scrambled to find enough hay for their livestock and hay prices increased substantially this winter.

“Certainly, when all is said and done we will see the lowest carryover we’ve seen in many, many years,” said Tom Keene, hay marketing specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the 2008 crop.”

In some instances, high prices for wheat, corn and soybeans could also play a role in the 2008 hay crop as farmers consider hayfields for these crops instead. Keene said he was aware of one hay producer who said he will have to have the same prices for his hay in 2008 as he received in 2007, or he’ll switch his fields. This may not be a big factor, but for livestock owners that have used that hay supplier in the past it could mean finding other sources.

What Keene expects to see in Kentucky is farmers working furiously to bale as much hay as possible to meet their needs as either livestock producers or hay sellers. For livestock producers, he said, they need to figure out how many cattle they will be feeding and how much hay they will need to feed their herd from November until April 2009 and shoot for that target.

It is recommended that farmers keep some extra hay as a cushion, in case they need more than anticipated or they face another year of short supplies. Once they meet that, then they can market the remainder.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Keene said. “Producers learned some tough lessons this year. Many will be better cattle managers and forage managers in 2008 than they were in 2007.”

Hay prices will likely remain higher than they were prior to 2007. Strong demand for other commodities limits the likelihood of additional acres being seeded in forages. Couple that with higher costs for fertilizer and fuel along with seed shortages, and farmers will need to get more for their product to be profitable.

“Hay producers need to know what they have in it in terms of expenses,” he said.

Keene cautions farmers about cutting hay on fields that they’ve not used in the past, especially if they are extremely weedy. These fields may produce low quality hay. He encourages farmers who may go this route to have their hay tested for quality as should all producers. Knowing the quality of the hay allows a producer to know what nutrient levels will be available for his livestock or allows the hay seller to price his supply accordingly.

Kentucky producers are doing a better job of knowing the feed value of their hay by taking samples and having them tested through the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, he said. Testing has increased from 1,242 in 2004 to 3,843 in 2007, but there’s still room for improvement. Ideally, all producers should know the quality of their hay.

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