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Winter tough on alfalfa but clears hay stocks

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Hay growers are dealing with winter kill from a harsh winter but are encouraged that cattle producers needed more hay than normal, which helped clear stocks.

It was a long, cold winter with a lot of snow, and a lot of feeder hay got cleared out, said Will Ricks, president of the Idaho Hay and Forage Association and a hay grower in the Mud Lake area.

That has him looking for higher prices, up at least $30 a ton on feeder hay from last fall. He said he thinks prices for dairy hay will strengthen as well, just not as much.

Markets are still low, but that won’t be sustained, given the amount of hay that beef and dairy producers burned through this winter, said Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho Extension dairy specialist in Twin Falls.

He suspects there isn’t much old-crop hay left, and damage from flooding in the field and in stacks as a result of abundant precipitation this winter is bound to bring improvements in the market, he said.

Quite a bit of winter kill is showing up, with significant stand loss ranging from spots in fields to entire fields. He also expects to see disease problems ahead from saturated soils, he said.

Fewer acres could also boost prices, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. USDA is forecasting a 2 percent increase in Idaho’s harvested hay acres this year.

That’s a shock to Ricks, who said a lot of older stands were torn out last fall because prices were low.

Shewmaker, too, said it looked like a lot of stands were plowed out, some due to vole devastation. But growers could have replanted, he said.

Across the border in Oregon, USDA is expecting a 2 percent decline in harvested acres. Silver Lake grower and hay hauler Scott Pierson thinks that’s underestimated.

“Winter kill is really starting to show up in alfalfa that was under snow and under water too long,” he said.

Varying levels of root rot are affecting stands in Central Oregon, where winter injury is going to take a toll, he said.

“I think stands got damaged pretty good this winter,” he said.

Prices haven’t been encouraging, softened by carryover stocks from 2015, and growers are pulling out stands. Alfalfa is going to be down both in acres and yield, he said.

On the flip side, the abundant moisture is good for dryland production and grass hay. A lot of old-crop feeder hay has been coming to the market to empty out barns. Milk prices have come up a bit and should lift the market.

All in all, he expects hay prices this fall to be up $10 to $20 a ton from last fall, he said.

Hay crops in Washington are later than last year but starting to come on. Winter kill from ice and cold is sporadic in the Moses Lake area, where Brian Eddie — president of Washington State Hay Growers Association — farms.

“Overall, I think we’re going to have a pretty decent year in crops and the hay market. I think markets are starting to improve, and there won’t be a lot of leftover of old crop,” he said.

Cattlemen ended up feeding more hay through the fall and winter than usual and longer into spring, he said.

USDA is forecasting a 2 percent increase in Washington’s harvested acres this year. That’s probably because of growers’ unwillingness to tear out stands to plant other commodities that have lower or similar returns to hay, he said.

It’s a matter of keeping it in the ground and seeing what they can get, he said, but some growers might plant hay ground to something else after the first cutting.

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