Hay Shortages Leave Cattlemen Selling Herds

Friday, November 2nd 2007, 7:10 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ On his southern Illinois spread, where some 450 cows look to him for food, the only thing that seems to be growing these days are Dale Moreland's headaches over hay.

The 55-year-old cattleman, like others in the Midwest and beyond, has been hurt by a one-two punch of a spring freeze and months of drought. They have savaged hay crops and kept pastures from greening, forcing producers to tap hay stockpiles months earlier than usual.

The scenario has left beef producers with few options other than selling off parts of their herds for fear there will not be anything to feed them through winter, or jockeying to buy increasingly scarce hay elsewhere at higher prices.

``I can name several guys down here with 50 to 100 cows who normally buy all their hay, and there's just none to buy,'' Moreland said Wednesday.

He expected to be selling off all but about 25 of his 275 calves in the next month or so ``to get down to the bare minimum for winter.''

Such tales of woe are not unusual across U.S. regions scorched by drought, cutting hay production by as much as 80 percent in Tennessee to 50 percent or more in Kentucky. Much of Virginia, which usually produces three cuttings, got only one this year.

``We don't have anywhere in the United States where we have a large excess supply of hay stocks,'' said Kendal Frazier, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

The tight supplies have sent hay prices higher. On average across the country, Frazier figures, alfalfa hay _ popular because of its high quality _ fetches about $25 a ton more than last year. Getting a cow through winter may require as many as two tons of hay, Frazier says.

``Say you have 300 cows _ that's $15,000'' in higher costs just for hay, Frazier said. ``That's why they're selling the cows.''

On his farm near Anna, Moreland does not see any other choice.

Most years, he says, he has enough hay to carry his herd through winter, with the first cutting yielding three to four bales per acre and the second crop half that. This year's cutting? Just two bales per acre the first time through ``and essentially none the second,'' Moreland said.

Mike Netemeyer can relate.

The dairyman with about 300 cows about 11 miles south of Greenville typically grows 80 acres of alfalfa, or three to four trailer loads of hay, each about 22 to 24 tons. But frost months ago ``pretty much killed it all.''

``So we've done everything we could to make up the difference,'' including buying more hay from the Kansas supplier he's used for years, he said.

Netemeyer has tried to stretch things into feed, harvesting and chopping milo stalks and corn that has resprouted since recent rains.

About 250 miles to the north, Vern Shiller is proof of just how fickle nature can be.

The 70-year-old retiree in McHenry County, which hugs the Wisconsin state line and did not lack rainfall this season, is swimming in hay. With four cuttings under his belt this year, he sold four semi loads to producers in Tennessee one day this week, and he's got at least another trailer load bound for Missouri.

``I've got probably three more semi loads I can sell,'' Shiller said. ``It doesn't do me any good in inventory. If someone else needs hay, by God, we've got it. We got it priced reasonable,'' about $90 a ton for decent quality alfalfa.