Many Factors Affect Availability,
Price of Hay
California, Washington extension specialists discuss hay situation in the West and Southwest.
Hay is in short supply and very expensive this year in many parts of the country, especially in the West and Southwest where drought is extensive. Peter Robinson, extension specialist at the University of California–Davis, says most of California has been in a drought situation for several years.
“When there is less water available, growers change to crops that have less need for water. The first one that gets hurt is cotton. Alfalfa, on the other hand, which is a big hay crop here and worth a lot right now, is not affected as much,” he says. “We haven’t lost very many acres of alfalfa over the past couple years, but the high price is being driven by a number of things, including the fact we are exporting a lot of alfalfa to other countries.”
Dairies are also outbidding beef operations for good-quality hay, and this raises the price on all classes of hay, he says.
Curtis Beus, extension beef specialist at Washington State University, says the hay situation in most of his state is dire.
“Hay could not be found anywhere in this region last winter,” he reports. “There were hay growers who were actually buying hay from 150 miles away to have hay for their regular customers, selling it at a loss in some instances just so they wouldn’t lose their customers. Hay was hard to find clear down into the Columbia Basin, where they produce a lot more.
“Statewide, hay prices are extremely high, and I don’t think that will change this year. It will probably take a few years to catch up,” he continues.
“In this county last winter hay supplies were already short, and then three ranchers lost their entire hay supply — two from a wildfire and one from spontaneous combustion. To replace this loss they had to buy hundreds of tons of hay, which made it harder for smaller operators to find any,” says Beus.
Hay supplies are low all over the West. The drought itself is not the problem for most Washington hay growers.
“Probably 90% of the hay we produce in Washington is done with irrigation, and we have a reliable source of irrigation water from the Columbia River. Smaller streams and groundwater in other parts of the state are being affected, but in Okanogan County and the Columbia Basin, our irrigation situation is fairly stable.”
The bigger problem is that hay acreage in Washington state is down.
“When the price of grain shot up a few years ago, people took out their hayfields and put in grain,” Beus explains. “Now hay is high, but grain is still incredibly high, so there has not been a big shift back from grain to hay. In Washington there are still fewer acres of hay than there were 10 years ago.”
Editor’s Note: Heather Smith Thomas is a freelancer and cattlewoman from Salmon, Idaho.