WICHITA, Kansas (AP) — Hay fields across Kansas have finally dried off from all the recent rainfalls that farmers can get into them this week to cut overgrown alfalfa crops and mow lush prairie grasses to put up as feed for livestock this winter.
At the Agriculture Department's office in Dodge City, the agency's hay market reporter Steve Hessman said he is hearing from producers who are cutting as much as 2 tons of hay per acre from this third cutting of alfalfa — twice as much as normal for August across much of the state. But then a normal August in Kansas is hot and dry, not cool and wet as it has been in recent weeks.
"It is going to be a good cutting tonnage wise or quantity wise, whichever way you want to put that," Hessman said. "Quality — we are not sure because most of it is past the prime for maturity and, of course, it could still get rain damaged. And in some cases we've seen weeds growing up because of the extra moisture."
All that rain that had kept producers out of their alfalfa fields at the peak time to harvest for this third cutting meant much of it has grown too mature, too rank and, for some, with too much pig weed in it, he said.
While there is going to be a lot more of the lower-quality hay — typically used for grinding or stock cows — there is not going to be a lot of the top quality, dairy hay that milking cows need.
The recent rains have also affected the market for prairie hay, which is usually cut in July, because the grasses now being harvested are more mature and the stems on them are getting harder, he said.
In a typical growing season, Kansas gets four cuttings of alfalfa — with the first and last cuttings typically producing the top-quality hay sought by dairy producers. But late spring frosts and drought this year hurt alfalfa crops, setting plants back so much that the state essentially did not have much of a first cutting of alfalfa and just a modest second cutting.
Statewide, this third cutting of alfalfa could potentially be larger than all the other cuttings put together this season, Hessman said. But while most growers benefited from the rains, the drought for the most part persists in far western Kansas.
It has been so dry in northwest Kansas where rancher Mike Schultz runs his cattle operation near Brewster that he plowed up his feed acres and planted milo instead this past spring — mostly because crop insurance for milo pays better than the government program that pays for livestock feed losses. He figures that if his milo crop fails this year then at least he would have enough insurance money to buy feed for his cows.
That is a much better option than last year when he bought $3,000 worth of forage seed and his insurance paid just $2,200 for his losses: "I lost quite a bit of money and didn't cut one bale of feed out of my acres," Schultz said.
It has rained a bit more lately around Brewster, but the drought lingers. Schultz had already cut his cattle herd by two-thirds during the drought and plans on buying hay for the 80 cows he has left. He hopes the abundant rainfall elsewhere in the state will help moderate the high hay prices.
"I would think prices would probably come down a little bit. For some that is a good deal, and everybody will make a little bit of money if we can all stay in business," he said. "If you drive one segment out, pretty soon it is not good for everybody."
It is a far different scenario in northeast Kansas where rancher Ron Estes said his third cutting of alfalfa is probably going to the biggest of all he has cut this growing season. The brome and sedan grasses are also doing well. He not planning on selling any of it, but intends to keep it to feed his own livestock this winter.
Estes also anticipates hay prices will come down more hay becomes available: "It will certainly be cheaper, but I don't know whether it will be a lot cheaper," he said.
First cutting of alfalfa for stock cow use was trading about $210 to $220 a ton, and is now bidding around $200 a ton, Hessman said. Top-quality dairy hay in southwest Kansas, where the state's dairies are concentrated, was trading this week at $265 to $280 a ton.
The improving hay situation in parts of the country that have gotten abundant rains these past few weeks will help keep prices down for those cattlemen still in drought stricken areas who will have to buy hay for their livestock this winter.
Southeastern Colorado is still dry, but that state's northeastern region got some rain. Eastern Nebraska is in "pretty good shape" as far as hay production and rains, Hessman said. Wyoming is still dry.
"The Texas Panhandle has had rain," Hessman said. "But I don't think they have rebuilt their cow herds."
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