Hay crop off to good start

TWIN FALLS — Forage producers in southern Idaho are experiencing one of those Goldilocks springs: it’s not too cold, it’s not too hot, it’s not too wet. It’s just right. That has alfalfa growers hoping for a good year.

“It’s not too weedy, it’s come on slow, it should be good quality hay,” said Glenn Meyer, who farms near Filer.

Alfalfa seems to be about a week to 10 days behind last year’s crop.

He said he expected swathers in fields this week. A few producers got started over Memorial Day weekend, the traditional beginning of the hay season, but many were waiting just a few more days. Producers are now trying to balance a few more days to increase tonnage but not allowing the crop to bloom, which lowers quality.

“We’ll have to see how this heat (over Memorial Day weekend) affects us,” Meyer said. “It may speed things up quite a bit.”

Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho extension forage specialist at Kimberly, said he thinks his yield trials at Kimberly will be slightly above normal. But that’s not true everywhere.

Damage from clover root curculio, an insect whose larvae feed on alfalfa roots, delayed development in some fields and reduced stands. That will reduce yields in those fields. The upper valleys saw significant damage from frost this spring.

While the crop appears to be off to a good start, Meyer said he has noticed that there aren’t as many hay fields around this year. Although hay prices are strong, many growers have rotated to other crops. And limited irrigation water supplies in some areas, like the Salmon Tract south of Twin Falls, have forced growers to plow alfalfa stands.

Shorter hay stacks should help support hay prices. New crop hay was quoted at $250 a ton in late May and some market watchers expect to see prices top $300 a ton this summer, as dairymen in California try to secure hay.

According to the USDA’s May stocks report, Idaho growers had 320,000 tons of hay stored on farm May 1, down 44 percent from a year ago. That represents about 6 percent of the total 2013 production. Livestock producers have fed just over 2 million tons of hay since December 1.

Nationally, hay stocks are up 35 percent over the drought-stricken 2012 crop. Hay prices are about $14 a ton below last year and are similar to the 2011-12 crop year, which runs from May to April. May stocks of 19 million tons represented about 14 percent of the total U.S. production last year.

Concerns about the continued drought in California coupled with strong milk and meat prices have firmed medium quality hay prices in the Midwest to $206 a ton, up $15 in April.

Hay is one of the most expensive feed ingredients in a dairy cow’s ration. Dairymen are closely watching the hay crop and milk production around the country. Downward price movements in both butter and spot cheese are putting pressure on the June and July Class III milk futures contract prices.

But on the bullish side, the USDA’s latest milk production estimate continues to show that milk production growth across the nation is just 1 percent. Although the herd has been growing since the beginning of the year, output per cow continues to be sluggish, said Dave Kurzawski, an analyst with FC Stone.