Hay 2015: A Dismal Picture

By Lester R. Vough, Forage Crops Extension Specialist Emeritus, University of Maryland

This has been the toughest year for hay making that I have seen in a long time. May was hot and dry–and those hay growers that made a timely first cutting of alfalfa and orchard grass have some really nice hay. However, the cool, wet spring delayed growth so the May cuttings tended to be below normal yields.

During June and early July there simply wasn’t suitable weather to make hay so any first cutting hay that did get put up during that time period was overmature, rained on, or both. The first cutting hay made in mid-July or later is so overmature that even without rain during harvest it has low feed value. For those hay growers who did get a first cutting put up in May, the wet weather in June and early July resulted in the second cutting being overmature with a lot of dead (brown) leaves reducing quality and appearance.

In some areas the weather has gone from one extreme to the other. Where I live, we haven’t had any significant rain for at least 5 to 6 weeks and cool-season grass (orchard grass, tall fescue, etc.) growth stopped a couple of weeks ago. Only the warm-season annuals (crabgrass, foxtails, etc.) are growing and they are even suffering from lack of moisture. Thus third and fourth cutting yields are being impacted–and if we don’t soon get significant rain there may not be a fall cutting.

For those needing to buy hay, I’m afraid that it is a pretty dismal picture. While I don’t have any official reports to substantiate the rumours of hay growers’ barns/ garden storage sheds being at 30% capacity for this time of year, overall that is probably a realistic figure based upon what I am seeing and hearing.

Right now I would say that the supply of good quality hay is going to be extremely short come winter. Hay growers who do have some good quality hay are either holding what they have for their regular repeat customers or holding it for fall and winter sale when prices are anticipated to be higher than they are now. It appears from recent auction prices that much of the hay currently in the market place is lower quality hay that growers don’t want to hold in storage.

The unfavorable weather pattern was more widespread than just in Maryland, and areas from which we would normally import hay have faced similar conditions. Thus the supply picture is bleak for Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and possibly even eastern Canada (Ontario and Quebec). My brother’s barns in southwest Pennsylvania were only about half full last winter and he had to buy hay from other growers to keep his regular repeat customers supplied. At this point it looks like his barns may not even be half full come this winter.

Let’s hope the predictions for a mild winter come true so that we won’t need to feed as much hay as last winter!