with Les Vough

The Equiery welcomes legendary hay man Les Vough to our pages; in print and online. For 34 years, Les served as the Extension forage specialist, first for Oregon State University and later for the University of Maryland. Recently retired, he now serves as a consultant to federal and state agencies. Les will offer his analysis and prognostications of the current and coming hay situation in Maryland.


September 2010
After four years of short supplies of good quality hay, I thought 2010 would surely be different and something close to normal. But as we approach the end of the 2010 hay making season it does not look promising for obtaining normal supplies of good quality horse hay. While USDA’s market reports are indicating adequate hay supplies being available, those reports do not take quality into account – they only report overall quantity. Yes, across the region there is probably an adequate supply, even though some areas of the Mid-Atlantic Region have been extremely dry and hay is in very short supply in some localities. But while some areas suffered from drought, other areas experienced a lot of cloudy weather and nuisance rain showers. Thus a lot of hay in those areas is either rain damaged, overmature due to delayed harvest, or both. Some hay growers are still trying to finish up second cutting when they should now be doing third and fourth cuttings. So it has been another difficult year for hay growers.

I think the supply situation is reflected in current hay prices at auctions. Prices for good quality hay are somewhat higher than normal for this time of year and the range in prices for any given type of hay seems to be rather wide. I think the range in prices is a reflection of the quality that is being offered for sale. For example at the Westminster auction, low quality hay is selling in the $2-3 per bale range while high quality (horse hay) is $5-6 or more.

Many of the hay growers that I have talked to have a much more limited supply of high quality horse hay than normal. Some are probably not going to be able to fully meet the needs of their regular customers, let alone take on new customers.

If you have not already made provision for your hay needs for the coming winter, it might be a good idea to begin making some arrangements now if you want top quality hay. Top quality hay sells first and there may not be much top quality hay left come January and February. If you generally deal with the same hay supplier year after year and have not already discussed your needs for the coming winter, I would suggest getting in touch with him/her soon and make your needs known. Most hay growers will store hay for later delivery as long as the buyer has made a definite commitment to purchase. At least try to anticipate what your minimal hay needs will be the winter feeding period and plan for that

Of course the overall demand for hay over the next six to eight months will be affected by weather conditions and how much pasture will be available for fall and early winter grazing, thereby reducing the amount of hay needing to be fed, how cold the winter will be as well as the amount and duration of snowfall that may require feeding of additional hay, and what the hay supply situation will be in other states that normally ship into the Mid-Atlantic Region

I don’t mean to alarm you – there will be hay in the marketplace. But if you have horses that deserve only the best top quality hay, shop early!
In future columns I will share my experiences and impressions gained through working with hay growers, horse owners, agency and agribusiness personnel in an effort to provide a monthly overview of the hay supply and market situation.

October 2010
Weather and soil moisture conditions continue to be dry as of mid-September and prospects for a good fall cutting of grass hay are getting more and more dim. Some real good quality second and third cutting hay was put up in late July and August but the yield, especially of grass hay, was generally less than normal due to hot, dry weather conditions throughout most of the Mid-Atlantic region. We normally get 60-80% of our total annual yield of grass hay from the first cutting, and much of that was rained on and/or overmature when cut due to delayed harvest as a result of the rainy weather early in the season. So a lot of first cutting hay is of low quality. Then we got a double whammy this year when mid- and late-summer weather turned dry and reduced regrowth, thus further reducing supplies of higher quality hay.

So if we only get 20-40% of our grass hay yield from regrowth cuttings (second, third, etc.) and those were hurt by dry weather, it is very difficult to make up for the first cutting losses. Furthermore, many grass hay fields have limited growth at this point and may not have sufficient growth to justify harvesting again. Hay growers who were hoping for a good fall cutting to make up for some of the early season losses lost much of that hope as each day without rain went by in most areas well into late September.

The accompanying table lists weekly hay prices for the Westminster Hay Auction since early June. Early in the haymaking season prices were relatively low, as might be expected in the midst of haymaking and when pastures are growing and there is less need to feed hay (thus lower demand). Lower prices this year might also reflect lower quality hay coming into the early market due to a lot of first cutting hay being rain damaged and/or overmature. Prices spiked in July through mid-August, especially for the higher quality hay, probably largely associated with the dry weather and limited pasture growth. With enough rain in mid-August to bring on a flush of warm-season annual grass growth (crabgrass, foxtails, etc.) and to green up many pastures once again, hay prices fell back somewhat in the last 3-4 weeks. As we are now running out of pasture growth once again, I would expect to see hay prices start to climb back up. How much they will climb will remain to be seen. I expect high quality hay prices to climb much more steeply than lower quality, simply because the supply of higher quality hay appears to be quite limited, while there is an ample supply of low and mediocre quality hay in storage barns and sheds.

Trying to save money by buying lower quality hay might end up being “penny wise and dollar foolish.” Paying $2.50 per bale for hay of which the horses eat half and refuse the other half ends up costing the equivalent of $5.00 per bale of which all is consumed. Not only does the cost of hay end up being the same but the higher quality hay should have higher nutritional value and thus less concentrate (grain or sweet feed) supplementation will be needed, saving money in the long run.

November 2010
It is much cooler in the haymow now than it was a month or two ago when I was helping to stack the hay in there. It is much more comfortable, at least temperature-wise, as we take hay out of the mow and load the trailer for delivery. Hopefully we can get most of the deliveries made before the snow flakes start flying up in the mountains.

A good thing is that it has finally rained, ending the drought, but the bad thing is that it came too late to be of much benefit in getting any really significant growth in our hay crops. By the time rainfall did occur, the growing season for our primary hay crops was pretty much over. Shorter day length, reduced radiation intensity and lower temperatures really begin to limit growth of most of our hay and pasture plants once we get into October.
Thus most hay growers were not able to add appreciably to their hay supply. As I mentioned in the October column, indications are that there is an ample supply of lower-quality hay (rain-damaged, overmature, and rain-damaged plus overmature) but a limited supply of high-quality hay. I think evidence of the quantity vs. quality issue is reflected in the high/low price spread at auctions. Low-quality hay is relatively cheap, an indication of an abundant supply at the auctions at this time. High-quality hay is generally bringing a considerably higher price, especially for this time of year. Again I think this is an indication of a limited supply of higher-quality hay at the auctions. Supply/demand is really at play.

Prices at the Westminster Hay Auction over the last six weeks are shown in the accompanying table. It appears that the prices for the lower quality hay increased somewhat the last three weeks. That may be a result of fewer lots being offered for sale the last three weeks compared to the first three weeks in September.

We may also be seeing cattle producers coming into the marketplace as they run out of available pasture feed and need to begin feeding hay. Beef producers in some areas had to feed a lot of their hay supply to get through the summer and will need to purchase hay to get through the winter. For the most part they will be in the market for some of the lower-quality hay, adding to the demand for that hay and helping to push up prices.

And it is possible that price resistance for higher-quality hay may also be entering the picture. Reluctance on the part of some horse owners to pay the higher prices for higher-quality hay may also be contributing to increased demand for lower-quality hay, thus helping to drive its price upward.

But keep in mind, again as I pointed out in last month’s column, trying to save money by buying lower-quality hay might be “penny wise and dollar foolish.” A horse owner recently told me that it makes more sense to him to pay a higher price for hay that the horses will completely consume than buying lower-quality hay for a cheaper price but that the horses only partially consume, with the rest ending up wasted under their feet. So you need to look at the trade-off.

The dry mid- and late summer weather affected many orchard grass pastures and hayfields, in some cases resulting in almost complete stand losses. It is much too late now for doing any reseeding this fall. But if this happened to you, begin assessing your situation now and making plans for seeding next year.

Many of the pastures that I have looked at recently have severe weed problems such as invasion by pigweed, horse nettle, plantains, dandelion, and the like. I have seen a number of pastures that had broadleaf herbicides applied for weed control in mid- and late September with limited success. There was some control of plantains and dandelion but most of the pigweed and horse nettle survived and are still there producing an abundant seed crop. These pastures and hayfields will have a tremendous amount of weed seed on the ground which will only add to the weed problems next year.

So begin making plans now for how you will deal with the weed issues and how you want to renovate these fields next year. Don’t wait until next March to begin thinking about what you are going to do, start thinking and planning now! If you need help, contact your local county Extension or Soil Conservation District office. Information on seeding new pastures and renovating old pastures is also available on the Web at http://www.mda.state.md.us/resource_conservation/technical_assistance/how.php. You can also look for opportunities to attend educational programs where pasture improvement topics will be presented, such as Horse World Expo to be held January 20-23, 2011 in Timonium, Maryland.