Cloudy Forage Outlook

Mixed Bag Found in Forage Production and Markets

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Great planting conditions for forage exist this spring after wet conditions were seen in 2019, but forage demand could fall with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. (DTN photo by David L. Hansen)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Kim Summers, from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, hopes for warmer weather and less moisture in hay fields this summer. The hay producer and marketer lost half her forage production in 2019 to extremely wet conditions.

While the outlook for forage production looks generally positive with fewer weather issues in 2020, storm clouds threaten in the form of COVID-19.

"We are very concerned about the economic situation," Summers told DTN.

Summers, known on social media as the Hay Lady in PA, said many of her hay customers are already struggling to afford hay purchases.

"We have cut our (forage) prices to the bare bones," she said. Livestock market disruptions also threaten demand.

Her customer base is divided in two main groups: livestock producers and horse owners. The dairy and beef cattle industries face many challenges with commodity prices and demand dropping (…) and packing plants closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic (…).

Some horse owners lost income and do not have the funds to buy hay for their animals. Summers noted that unemployment benefits have not made it to many horse owners yet.

"You might say to yourself, 'Why don't they just get rid of the horses?' but the question is where do you do this at?" Summers asked. "Many of the horse rescues are full," she said, adding that one of the people who does horse rescues came home one day recently to find at the gate three horses that someone had let go.

Kim Cassida, Michigan State University Extension forage specialist, sees supply chain issues for the beef, lamb and milk industries, along with a recession, driving whether people can pay for hay -- and this is influencing hay market value.

She said Michigan appears to have a decent amount of low-quality first-cut hay left over from 2019, but there is little demand for this type of hay. Good-to-premium quality hay of any type is in short supply in the state, she added.

Wet conditions in 2019 lowered the quantity of hay Summers had available to sell from around 400,000 small square bales to closer to 200,000 bales of various types of forages. As a result, her supply of hay is rapidly running out this spring.

Normally by April, she would still have 20,000 to 30,000 bales left to sell. This April, she estimated she could be completely out of hay by the end of the month.


In his recent Ag Weather blog titled "Drier Spring Offers Rain Buffer", DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson wrote the story is much different this spring compared to 2019. Sizeable areas in the Northern Plains and central Midwest have 6 to 10 inches less precipitation in the past 60 days compared with the same period in 2019. (…)

Jeff Jackson, alfalfa and forage specialist for CROPLAN-Winfield United, expect more forage being seeded because of a drier planting window, ethanol plants producing less distillers dried grains (DDG) and lower commodity prices.

"I'm going to guess there will be more alfalfa acres planted this spring," Jackson said.

For existing alfalfa stands, last year's wet weather could have drowned out areas, especially in low spots of fields, he said.

Michigan State's Cassida said while it has been a cold start to spring in Michigan, the field conditions are not as wet as last year at this time, but there are still a lot of saturated soils.

"This may reduce forage quality, increase ash and increase weed pressure," Cassida said.

Jackson said the good news is the winter of 2019-20 was fairly mild in most of the Midwest and winterkill should be limited.

There was some alfalfa growth with warmer weather in early April, only to see freezing conditions at mid-month slow growth again, he said. If it gets warmer, the plants should start to grow again.

"I think most of the alfalfa will still be cut pretty close to normal if we see warmer temperatures, we just need some sustained 60- to 70-degree days," he said.


The forage outlook in central Missouri appears to be fairly positive, according to Seth Wilbanks, a forage and cattle producer from Hughesville, Missouri. After a severe drought in 2018 limited forage growth, and above-average growing conditions in 2019, 2020 looks to be more in line with the previous year.

Wilbanks estimated the moisture levels this spring have been fairly close to average. The temperatures, however, are probably somewhat below average.

"We had a couple nights with freezing temperatures last week (week of April 12) and that has really slowed the growth of grasses," Wilbanks told DTN. "Before that we had some nicer days and really good growth."

Wilbanks will graze and bale orchardgrass, red clover and fescue on this central Missouri farm. Warmer weather will be needed to spur forage growth along, he said.

The good news for forage producers in this region is much hay remains because the 2019 growing season was so productive. Wilbanks estimates he still has about 800 round bales from last year as he was able to graze cattle for most of the winter with little hay being fed.

"Having this extra supply of hay from last year really helps to take the pressure off, he said.


Available moisture has left forages in generally good condition across Texas, according to Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension forage specialist. Dry and droughty conditions have been a problem in south Texas, where pasture and rangeland are in decline.

Corriher-Olson is located at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center at Overton, located in east Texas. This area had quite a bit of rain this winter and spring and warm-season perennials have broken dormancy. Forages are starting to grow with little hay harvesting started yet, she said.

In central Texas, some producers have already started to bale hay. Much like east Texas, the central part of the state has also had plentiful rainfall.

"They have primarily been baling cool-season forages, such as annual ryegrass," Corriher-Olson said. "Producers are starting to 'clean-up' warm-season perennial hay meadows by harvesting any volunteer annual ryegrass, as well as any other winter grasses that popped up."

Corriher-Olson said the Texas Panhandle has pastures and rangeland in fair-to-good condition again, thanks to adequate moisture. This region had three days of freezing conditions in mid-April, which left some wheat producers in the region monitoring fields for freeze damage, she added.

CROPLAN-Winfield United's Jackson has his own YouTube channel where he discusses various forage issues. See….

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Russ Quinn