Buy Hay Now

And other strategies for managing your hay program
By Curt Harler

An ag economics maxim says it is better to sell and be sorry than not to sell and be sorry. The flip side - that it's better to have hay at today's prices than worry about the cost of hay in February - was never more true than this year. The weather across the Northeast this past summer made forage production a gamble. It is typically a multiyear venture, so hay producers have to look at their return from a forage stand over a three to four-year period.

Forage specialist Glenn Shewmaker examines tall fescue in a test plot at the ARS Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research Laboratory in Kimberly, Idaho.
Photo by Ken Hommond, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

In the short term, demand for hay is good and should get stronger. Aside from the constant demand from dairy producers, a 1,200-pound dry beef cow needs 3 percent of its body weight per day (or 36 pounds) in dry matter forage. Horse owners always want "the best" hay available, even if they are reluctant to pay top dollar for premium product in an up market.

This past summer, a typical small square bale of alfalfa hay sold for about $7.95 on the open market in upstate New York. The same bale, without alfalfa, averaged $5.84. Both prices were markedly up from the local base $4.50 range over the early winter.

The best short-term strategy for hay consumers is to figure out what any shortfall might be and buy now before prices rise. For sellers, it appears there will be ample reward for storing hay into the late winter.

Hay prices

In late fall, most Pennsylvania hay prices clung close to or slightly above market averages for the time of year.

"Personally, I think you are going to see prices shoot up this winter," says Dave Wert with USDA Market News, New Holland, Pa. He notes that dairy producers have a tendency to postpone hay purchases until they absolutely need it. "Then, they've got to get it and have to buy it no matter the price," Wert says. On top of that, horse owners will be searching for good-quality forage.

Second cutting in much of the East was drastically reduced due to the drought. Vital rainfall allowed third and fourth cuttings, where they were taken, to be close to normal in size and quality. As early as September, however, some Lancaster County, Pa., auctions saw hay prices well over $400 a ton. Some premium alfalfa hay sold for $450 a ton. Even the better grades of timothy were going in excess of $250 a ton, with some loads breaking $300.

The Weaverland Auction saw some top mixed hay lots go at $350 a ton, and Dieffenbach saw mixed loads sell from $350 to $410 and timothy at $390. Prices are those paid by dealers at the farm.

Other areas were not as pricey. Kutztown Auction, in Berks County, Pa., moved mixed hay at $170 to $210 for good quality. Shippensburg was moving good-quality alfalfa at $210 and mixed hay in the $155 to $190 range.

At Shippensburg, hay that rated only fair quality hovered around $100 a ton. At Green Dragon in Ephrata, Pa., lower-quality mixed hay went for $100 to $125, with fair-quality grass hay nudging higher.

The experts feel that will change this winter, as demand is expected to grow.

"We won't see the effect of the drought until winter wears on," Wert says. Producers will realize they're going to come up short before the first cutting of 2013 hay is available. They will go out on the market and pay market prices.

"I'm looking to see prices rocket up," Wert says.

At an experimental field site in Oconee County, Ga., technician Steven Knapp cuts a test plot to determine hay yield.
Photo by Kim Lyness, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

Winter feeding strategies

One of the best ways to lower costs is to stockpile forage for winter use. Tall fescue is probably the most desirable and easiest forage to stockpile. In the fall, fescue packs on soluble sugars, meaning it is high in digestibility. In the summer, fescue fields get infested with endophytes that produce alkaloids that reduce palatability and can cause health problems. However, the toxins are concentrated in the seed heads, not the leaves. By fall, the animals face less heat stress and the value of fescue as feed goes up.

If you are purchasing fescue hay, be willing to pay a bit more for a later cutting than one from the summer months.

Homegrown fescue should be grazed in November, depending on location. Assuming a latitude roughly equivalent to southern Connecticut, the last cutting should be made around July 1, and feeding should start when the field is flush.

Topdress nitrogen a couple weeks after that final mowing. University research shows that earlier nitrogen applications result in higher yields. However, quality will suffer some.

At the University of Maryland, livestock specialists showed that animals gain better on fescue-clover pastures in the fall. However, come the first hard frost, the value of the legume deteriorates more rapidly than pure fescue. Graze the legume-mix pastures first and turn the animals into the pure fescue later.

Fescue is best fed to dry cows, as weaned calves or stockers might not get the necessary crude protein and total energy. Red clover will deteriorate even quicker than the fescues.

Double down

Are you baling or simply grazing to save labor? University researchers figure that livestock turned into a large pasture will waste 60 to 70 percent of the forage due to trampling and manuring. Producers who want more control over what they make from their hay can take several steps to boost production or increase quality.

One strategy is to double-crop corn after taking the first cutting. The goal, according to Penn State agronomists, is to get a ton or two of dry matter from the hay crop and then produce a corn crop that will give 75 percent or more of a normal, full-season crop. Labor is spread out in the spring and fall for corn planting and harvest, and for livestock operators, the hayfield is still available for spreading manure into the spring. The corn will take immediate advantage of the manure nutrients, reducing the need for nitrogen.

There are a couple of downsides. In a dry spring, the hay sucks up a lot of the moisture that could help corn get out of the ground. On the other hand, if the spring is wet and there was haying equipment mudding around the field, be prepared to deal with crusting and compaction when planting the corn.

Insects love grass, and once the hayfield is plowed they will look for the next green thing - likely your newly emerging corn.

In a dry year, set the corn planter to 2 or 2.5 inches to improve germination and assure better seed-to-soil contact. If the ground is wet, use a furrow-closer of some sort. An eight or 13-wave fluted coulter works fine.

Be sure you are in a growth zone where a short-season corn variety will thrive. Push a pencil on the added cost of herbicide or insecticide if you go that route.

At a St. Paul, Minn., test site, plant geneticist JoAnn Lamb (kneeling) and soil scientist Michael Russelle evaluate alfafa for root growth.
Photo by Bruce Fritz, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

A mixed approach

Most dairy producers in the Northeast are familiar with TMR (total mixed ration) for judging cows' intake. Based on USDA research, some have moved to a pTMR (partial total mixed ration) as a way to manage their summer grazing program.

Milk fat and overall milk production are usually lower in pasture-based programs than in confinement-fed cows. One challenge has been figuring the intake of feed in pasture-based programs.

With pTMR, balancing a ration is the same as for formulating a ration for confined cows. In studies on 13 farms in New York and Pennsylvania, the most common change in the pTMR was to replace pasture for grass silage on a 1-to-1 dry matter basis. Second was to reduce the protein level in the pTMR by reducing or eliminating protein supplements.

The USDA found that using a pasture plus pTMR was economically comparable to feeding TMR in confinement. Both TMR systems increased net return per cow by an average of $260 a year. The pasture plus pTMR gave environmental advantages in terms of lower phosphorus and potassium accumulation.

There are no set guidelines for the minimum amount of forage in a pTMR. The USDA says 6 or 7 pounds of forage dry matter per cow works well as a source of fiber, rumen buffer and carrier for other pTMR components.

Research says that feeding pTMR before grazing will encourage greater pTMR consumption, but may lower pasture intake. Be sure to give the cows ample bunk space to consume pTMR and include corn silage as supplemental forage.


Dry conditions influence availability of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in soils. After a year like 2012, soil K tests are particularly prone to large variability from previous years' tests.

Generally, with drying, soil test K increases for soils with low to optimum K levels and decreases for soils with high K levels, says Tom W. Bruulsema, Northeast director for the International Plant Nutrition Institute. Testing for protein, P and K will provide a look at the exact nutrient removal. Measuring nutrient contents in harvested forages will eliminate the guesswork when figuring how the drought affected nutrient removal.

Cover crops provide significant benefits to soil organic matter, structure and trafficability. The P and K they contain is recycled back to the soil. In addition, the nitrogen (N) they capture is N loss prevented, thus reducing environmental impact through nitrate loss to water or nitrous oxide emitted to the air.

Since forages may be in demand in many areas, cover crops may be harvested as emergency forage, Bruulsema says. Such harvests can generate substantial nutrient removals that need to be included in the crop nutrient balance.

"Drought in many parts of the Northeast in 2012 created a lot of unforeseen changes in nutrient cycles, and this means we need to re-evaluate what 'right' means for 2013," Bruulsema says. Measure the nutrients in the crops removed this year, whether it was grain or forage. Compare that removal to what was planned and re-examine nutrient budgets. "Measure what's left in the soil to make informed adjustments to future applications of nutrients," he concludes.

Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.