Despite Rain, Hay Looking Good in Pa.

6/29/2013 1:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

How is the quality of hay right now?

“If you got it made on time, pretty decent,” says Jesse Bitler, a farmer from Fleetwood, Pa.

If the weather and the needs of higher-priority crops have delayed first cuttings, though, farmers are “still making some (hay) where the quality isn’t nearly as good,” he says.

Industry analysts say that first cuttings are generally looking good in Pennsylvania, though other parts of the country are seeing more mixed results.

Rainy and humid weather in the first half of June have hampered local farmers’ ability to make their first cuttings.

Bitler has completed his second cutting of alfalfa — both cuttings were very good to “super” quality, he says — but he is still working on his first cutting of grass hay.

Despite the quality of his product, Bitler says he has not sold much hay and that the market has weakened recently.

Mike Kuhns, a Selinsgrove farmer, agrees that prices are softening, but he says that usually happens going into the hay season, when supply increases. Prices are still “OK,” he says.

Kuhns says that seeds have been expensive and hard to find. Reed canarygrass has been “almost nonexistent” on the market, and orchard grass and Tennessee grass have both increased noticeably in price, he says.

Kuhns attributes this decreased supply to seed farms in Oregon switching to crops such as small grains, corn and Roundup Ready alfalfa that can turn a profit but are less labor-intensive than seed production.

The USDA Weekly Crop & Weather Roundup for the week of June 23 reports that 82 percent of Pennsylvania’s timothy hay and 93 percent of its alfalfa has had a first cutting, with 83 percent of both being rated good or excellent.

Dwane Miller, an educator from Schuylkill County Extension, says that “some folks (who) made a very early, timely harvest” got very good hay, though the hay made over the past two weeks has been only good to fair.

Farmers who timed their first cutting well have been making their second cuttings since last week, he says. Those who have delayed their first cutting until now, on the other hand, should expect disappointing quality and need to make the cutting mostly so they can get their second round started.

Miller says farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania can sometimes get in as many as five cuttings if they “manage it intensively.”

He personally has made a lot of progress over the past week or so, when a reprieve from the rain gave him a chance to cut some hay. He feels he is not back on track, but he is glad to get the first cutting out of the way.

The adage about making hay while the sun shines is true, he says with a laugh.

Miller prefers to have three days of sun to make a cutting, and the recent weather has made it “very challenging for some farmers to get a hay crop off.”

Miller says he has seen some leafhoppers in alfalfa, but weevils have not been bad.

The cereal rust mite is nearing the end of its run, Miller says. Usually, the mite is a problem for timothy hay early in the season but fades away once the summer heat comes.

The wet conditions have also stalled hay cuttings in other parts of the country, potentially affecting national prices for animal feed.

Greg Sanders, a USDA market reporter in Moses Lake, Wash., says that quality in the Pacific Northwest, which produces some of the feed used in the Northeast and abroad, has also been good, but farmers in his area have also been stymied by rain.

Some farmers had cut hay lying on the ground and did not get a chance to bale before the rains came, which Sanders expects will make for “bleachy and stemmy (hay) from here on out.”

Sanders says prices have been “steady” compared with previous years, with prices ranging from $165 a ton for rained-on feeder hay to $225 a ton for higher-quality hay.

Rained-on timothy hay is currently fetching $325 a ton, but the rained-on bales have been hard to find.

Most of the hay on the market in that area has been first cutting, with second cutting held up by wet weather.

The Midwest, meanwhile, is in its second year of a hay shortage.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in February that livestock owners in Wisconsin faced hay prices two to five times the prices they were accustomed to thanks to a disastrous drought last year. Horse owners were offering their horses to rescue operations in droves, and horses in some parts of the country starved to death, the newspaper reported.

The situation has not improved this year, as the Midwest has experienced the same damp conditions Pennsylvania and Washington state have seen.

WKOW-TV in Madison, Wis., reported this month that some farmers are buying hay from other regions for $300-$400 a ton.

The president of the Dane County Farm Bureau told the television station that the feed cost increase might be significant enough to slightly increase the grocery-store price of beef.

Pennsylvania was one of the few states where farmers were largely spared by last year’s drought, so while rain has frustrated Keystone State farmers’ plans for cutting and baling this year, it has at least not led to a chronic hay shortage as it has elsewhere.

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