Bountiful Harvest

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s heavy moisture in late spring and early summer may not have been ideal for those who tire of mowing their lawns, but for hay producers, who love seeing tall grass, it was a beautiful greeting to the growing season.

After the summer’s first cutting, hay growers across the state are reporting high yields of both alfalfa and grass hay. Vigorous production rates, coupled with a high forecast in total harvested acreage, are leading some to predict a drop in hay prices.

Ken Smith, a farmer in the Flathead Valley, said he was getting about a half-ton of hay per acre last year. This year, production has jumped three-fold to one-and-a-half tons per acre. Smith, who grows predominantly alfalfa, said he didn’t need to use irrigation for his first cutting, the only time that’s happened in at least 20 years.

“We’re going see bumper crops in hay and in grain,” Smith said, adding that he expects hay prices to “soften some.”

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the July crop forecast calls for 2.7 million harvested acres of total hay in Montana, the second most ever recorded, and 1.8 million acres of alfalfa hay, the most ever. Yield and production forecasts will be released in the NASS August report, which comes out on Aug. 12.

In 2008, the average price of hay in Montana was a record-high $116 per ton, according to the NASS, with some farmers reporting that they paid as high as $200 per ton. September’s average price was $128 per ton.

The average for 2009 dipped to $95, based on the marketing year dated between June and May. During June, the first month of the 2010 marketing year, the average price of hay was $90. Hay reports through July showed prices remaining fairly steady.

Elevated hay prices send ripples throughout the agricultural community and can have dramatic effects on the bottom lines of livestock owners. When prices skyrocketed in 2008, horse owners around the nation said they were struggling to feed their animals.

Jane Heath, executive director of the Montana Horse Sanctuary in Simms, said hay prices are “always on our radar.” The sanctuary takes in horses in need and conducts outreach programs for horse owners with financial difficulties. Heath said her organization administers a “hay grant,” in which people can apply up to twice for $300 for hay and other feeds.

Heath said she’s “already seen slightly lower prices,” but the true litmus test will come later, after the rest of the harvest and when people are bracing for winter.

“It will be interesting to see what the second cutting will bring, or if there will be a third cutting in some communities,” Heath said. “By the end of September, people know if they’ll have enough hay for the winter.”

Hay isn’t the only crop expected to have a strong harvest in 2010. Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said farmers are anticipating a good season for winter wheat and pulse crops such as lentils and peas, which are growing in popularity in Montana.

Hot, dry weather, on the heels of a prolonged period of moisture, has ushered in ideal harvest conditions, Raska said.

“Overall, growers around the state are pretty optimistic this is going to be a good year production wise,” Raska said.

In 2009, according to the NASS, Montana was the second-largest producer of lentils in the nation. And this year, the number of planted acres has more than doubled, from 122,000 to 260,000.

Raska said the increase is due largely to farmers responding to buyer demand and the availability of federal benefits. Historically, pulse crops have been concentrated in northeastern Montana, she said, but now the trend is migrating to the state’s north central portion.

“There’s a lot more guys trying that than there have been in the past,” she said.

Wet weather has also had its down side. The moisture of late spring and early summer postponed planting for spring wheat and other crops, and has raised other potential issues, Raska said. For one, Raska said rain can leech out nitrogen in wheat and affect its protein levels.

“Montana is known for high-protein, high-quality wheat,” Raska said.

Also, several areas of the state have endured “spotty crops losses,” Raska said, due to hail, tornadoes and generally unruly weather. And farmers are grappling with the ever-growing concern of wheat stem sawflies, which feed on wheat and other crops.

“Our growers have reported seeing them in greater quantity and greater size than they’ve ever seen before,” Raska said.

But the outlook for hay seems to be universally positive, even for farmers like Smith who, accustomed to freak weather occurrences, never get ahead of themselves.

“We’ll see, but I think the second cutting will be good,” Smith said. “Things are just looking good.”

Average Hay Prices in Montana (per ton):

$90 – 2010 (June)*
$95.50 – 2009
$116 – 2008
$78.50 – 2007
$78– 2006

* Marketing year measured from June-May.

Hay Harvested Acres in Montana:

2.7 million –2010 forecast – second-highest since 1950
3 million – 2005 – highest since 1950
1.8 million – 1988 – lowest since 1950
2.34 million – 30-year average

Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service