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Hay Prices Skyrocket as Pasture Growth Delayed

MADISON COUNTY, Iowa  --  Farmers often have to worry about commodity prices, it's how they earn a living. But this year, hay prices are a concern. It is four times the usual amount.

Around this time of the year, cows have normally been out to pasture for a couple weeks. But there's still a lot of farmers feeding hay.  Tom Bradley is an auctioneer with DreamDirt he says, "A lot of them come here toward the end and just buy 'x' amount of bales to carry them hoping we get the moisture and the heat to bring on the grass to the pasture here."  Bradley is also a farmer, he says last year the dry weather led to less hay harvest for everyone during the summer.

In the fall, parts of Iowa were in a drought and declared a disaster area letting some farmers mow down Conservation Reserve Program acres to feed livestock.  Dan Hanrahan farms cattle in Madison County, he needed that provision, "It was a blessing for us just to get some hay we wouldn't have had otherwise, wouldn't have had to go out and purchase off other farmers."  Hanrahan had to harvest 50 bales from his CRP, to use as forage for the winter.

In December, producers realized there was a shortage and hay prices began to skyrocket. Bradley says typically prices are between $40 to $65 per 1,600 pound bale. This year they ran from $60 to $160.  Bradley says, "Hay that shouldn't be bringing the prices that they do, lower quality type hay, is bringing kind of a premium."

Hanrahan says CRP hay is also not the best nutrition, "You still have just an issue of quality, that you've got to address with taking care of the cows and the herd."  Hanrahan's heifers need to eat about 2 percent of their bodyweight per day, so about 30 pounds of food. Meaning each cow takes about 55 days to go through a bale of hay. Hanrahan has more than a hundred cows and calves.

Bradley says, "It's either, buy the hay, pay the price, or they start sending some cattle to market, which is happening. You know a cow loses a calf or comes up open, they don't give them that second chance."

But looking back, Hanrahan counts himself fortunate. A few miles south of him there was even less rain last year, but so far he's managed rotational grazing.

Hanrahan says he has available just in case, "In this particular pasture are first calf heifers so they're still growing and have a little more nutritional pull on them than the established cows. But we do monitor body condition closely. And I would say that the cows are staying in good shape and we've got them right where we would have had them otherwise, even with the challenges thrown at us."