Vough’s View From The Hay Mow with Les Vough

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.

A reader recently asked, “How do I, as a hay seller, time the market to get the best possible price for our hay? It seems the highest price was in October and since then it has fallen. Our timothy hay was cut appropriately and is of good quality, yet the price has declined at the auction.” Trying to time the hay market is much like trying to time the stock market. Timing the highs and lows is a guessing game, sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you aren’t. Sure, you can use the oanda broker to make it easier but you’re not always going to get it right. Some days we would have been better off to have stayed home than to have taken that load of hay to the auction. If I had the foresight to predict market ups and downs, I probably would be in a different job today.

That said, auction prices for any given type and quality of hay will vary to some extent from location to location. Some auctions sell primarily to dairy producers, others to horse owners and small or part-time farmers. Alfalfa will generally bring more at an auction surrounded by a lot of dairy farms than one surrounded by horse farms. On the other hand, timothy will typically bring more at an auction that serves horse owners. The buyers at Westminster, for example, tend to be predominantly horse owners and small, part-time farmers.

Your observation that overall hay prices have declined since October is reflected in a report on Pennsylvania hay prices. This report also shows a steady decline in overall prices over the last three years. I believe that an abundant supply of low- and mediocre-quality hay beginning with the 2008 hay crop has led to this decline in overall market prices. What is interesting when you look at Westminster auction prices is that higher quality hay seems to be holding its price when you look at the top and bottom prices for any given kind of hay. My observations are that the top prices are holding relatively stable in Maryland, maybe even strengthening some, while it is the lower side of the price range that has decreased.

When you are at the auction, look at the range in quality of the hay offered for sale and try to match the quality of your hay with other hay being sold. Then watch which is bringing the higher prices and which the lower prices and how your hay may differ from the higher-priced hay.
And recognize that buyers have different perceptions of what constitutes high-quality hay, especially within the pleasure horse community.

Nutritional value often times has little to do with the evaluation. I have been to auctions where horse owners were paying $5 to $6 per bale for fully headed-out, coarse, stemmy (but bright colored) timothy with low nutritional value and wouldn’t bid more than $2 to $3 per bale for second- and third-cutting bright green timothy or orchard grass that was all leaves and had three to four times the nutritional value of the first-cutting timothy. Part of hay marketing is knowing what type of hay the buyers in your marketplace prefer and will pay a premium price for.

Knowing that the buyers at the particular auction mentioned above would pay far more for an overmature first-cutting timothy than for a higher nutritional value second- or third-cutting grass hay, I would not sell my second- and third-cutting hay through that auction. I would find a market for it elsewhere. Individual auctions have a particular set of buyers with pretty specific preferences. As a hay seller you need to know those preferences and market your hay to match those preferences as best you can.