CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Months of high temperatures and low precipitation made 2012 the worst year for Wyoming hay growers in at least a decade and, in some cases, in nearly a century.
According to a report released from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the Cowboy State produced 1.9 million tons of hay in 2012, down from 2.4 million tons the previous year and the lowest such production since 2002.
Overall acreage for alfalfa hay was down by 145,000 to 475,000 acres total; acreage for other types of hay was down 100,000 to 400,000 total acres — the lowest since 1919.
"Hay production was down by 20 percent from last year," said Todd Ballard, director of the Statistics Service's Wyoming Field Office. "Our acreage was the main thing. We were way down."
The hay shortage has caused skyrocketing prices for the crop with alfalfa going for upward of $215 a ton in November, compared to $145 the previous year.
Likewise, Ballard said end-of-year hay stocks are down 27 percent from last January. They are at their lowest levels since 1950.
"Nationally, hay stocks are down 16 percent as well, and that's a big story," he added. "Anybody anywhere trying to get hay, they're also down on production as well."
Despite the bad numbers, Ballard said Wyoming was buoyed in part by healthy winter snowpack that helped feed the reservoirs growers use to irrigate their hay.
For that reason, he said, while overall production was down, the yield of individual acres was up.
Ballard said the question for 2013 will be whether Wyoming will get enough moisture to rebound.
So far, it doesn't look good. According to the latest report from the National Resources Conservation Service, snowpack across Wyoming is only 78 percent of normal with several drainage basins in the lower 60s or lower.
"Pasture conditions going into the winter were some of the worst conditions we've seen," Ballard said. "You didn't have to feed near as much last winter because we had really good pasture; there was a lot of good forage out there. This year that forage isn't there."
The last pasture report released in late October estimated that 61 percent of Wyoming pasture was in "very poor" condition with 25 percent in "poor" condition.
Ballard said the average for the past five years has been 3 percent very poor and 15 percent poor. As a result, ranchers hoping to maintain their stocks have had to turn to hay.
But with prices at record levels, Liz Lauck of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association said many ranchers have had to sell off their stocks.
Lex Madden, co-owner of the state's largest cattle market, Torrington Livestock Auction, said the spring of 2012 was possibly the busiest he ever has been, and the sales of cattle have continued apace.
"We have a sale here going on today (Monday)," he said. "We've got 2,100 bred cows and heifers, and a lot of them are selling just because of lack of pasture and hay."
Because so many cattle have been sold to slaughter, Madden said those ranchers who do survive into 2013 can expect a decent price for their stock. But if the feed situation doesn't improve, he said, those higher prices may not translate to a higher profit.
While hay, as the state's largest crop, has seen a bad year, Ballard said the high temperatures actually aided some other crops.
Dry bean production, which includes pinto, great northern and navy beans, was up 39 percent from 2011. Sugar beets also were up 4 percent, with corn, beans and sugar beet acreage all producing record yields.
Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com