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Drought takes toll on hay

Drought takes toll on hay

Sep 5, 2012 - By Joshua Scheer, Staff Writer

Fremont County growers are getting mixed results out of their crops while hay production is forecast to be among the lowest in decades.

According to an Aug. 10 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Wyoming Field Office, this year's hay harvested acreage could be the lowest since 1934. The report states that Wyoming's "all hay" harvest is estimated at 925,000 acres as of Aug. 1 --a decrease of 195,000 acres from last year.

Field office director Todd Ballard said the report predicts an average of 1.97 tons of hay will be produced per acre, down .13 tons from 2011.

The Field Office report states that production of all hay in the state is forecast at 1.82 million tons, down 23 percent from last year, or 530,000 tons. According to the report, those numbers would represent Wyoming's lowest hay production since 2002.

Specific numbers for Fremont County, one of the biggest hay producing counties in the state, will not be compiled until the end of the year.

University of Wyoming Extension educator Alex Malcolm, of Riverton, said he's heard of some local producers who won't be able to get a third cutting of hay this year because they let their second cutting grow longer in an attempt to harvest higher tonnage. Three cuttings are normal for a season.

"Hay is in shortage this year," Malcolm said.

He blames a lack of water for the trouble and said a number of environmental factors have played a role.

"Most of it is drought issues," Ballard said.

He said 82 percent of the state's pasture and rangeland has been rated as "poor" or "very poor," which is also comparable to 2002.

But a low snowpack to start the season and little moisture since then are causing problems.

"We had no ru off," Ballard said, adding that irrigation water supplies are low.

He said 14 of 33 moisture monitoring stations statewide are 4 inches or more below normal. Lander is 4.36 inches behind, Riverton is lacking 3.38 inches and Dubois is behind 2.5 inches.

Jeffrey City area rancher Tom Abernathy said his hay, grown to support his livestock, is not doing well.

"Our crop is probably about half," he said.

Abernathy blames the dry conditions and lack of runoff for his poor crop. His water comes from Beaver Creek and the Sweetwater River.

"It went pretty quick," he said of the Sweetwater supply.

Abernathy did one cutting with his native hay and is done with the crop for the year.

But, even with odds seemingly stacked against them, two rural Riverton hay producers said they are pleased with the year's crop.

Ray Blumenshine said this year was similar to seasons past.

"So far, real good," Blumenshine said, adding that his ranch and others in the Riverview area aren't seeing the same problems as the rest of the state.

In mid-August, Blumenshine said his third cutting was growing and was about a foot tall. While he initially had some trouble with his ditch, he said his water was flowing fine.

Blumenshine wouldn't guess whether the water would last the remainder of the season, but producer Robert Schrinar said "we should make it" when asked about his irrigation system.

"It looks like our river will hold up," Schrinar said of the Wind River.

Schrinar said his first cutting was excellent, his second was a little off, and the third should be good. The shorter length of the second batch he blamed on cutting too early.

A few growers who were luckier with water reportedly might get a small fourth cutting if the weather holds in September.

The statewide reduction in hay is driving up costs.

According to the Field Office report, the average cost of hay has been around $170 per ton.

Malcolm is seeing a higher average of $200 to $220, and he said some high-quality hay has gone for $300.

These numbers are somewhat comparable to prices last year that rose as droughts in the south forced more out-of-state purchases to Wyoming.

In 2010, average prices in the county were between $100 and $130.

"Prices are going to go higher," Malcolm said of this year.

Abernathy said he locked in purchasing additional hay at prices between $130 and $160. He's heard the going rate is between $250 and $300.

Despite the rise in costs, the lower amount of hay on the market could create a potential loss of $90.1 million for hay producers statewide according to the Field Office report. And the high costs could prove detrimental to livestock producers.

"Anyone who needs hay right now is in a bind," Ballard said.

Malcolm agreed, saying hay was being brought in from "anywhere they can" and for as little money as possible.

Malcolm said he's heard of people purchasing hay from North Dakota and shipping it to the county for less than the cost of local hay.

"But the quality isn't there," Malcolm added.

He said some livestock producers were selling animals sooner than they normally would because they can't afford to feed them. Abernathy said he is shipping his livestock off for sale about 10 days earlier than usual.

Right now, Malcolm said, livestock prices are "about average, maybe a little bit higher." He anticipates livestock prices to climb as the cost of feed climbs.

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