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Hay Is Leaving The Beef Business

Hay Is Leaving The Beef Business

Putting up hay is something that almost seems fundamental to ranching. Almost everyone can identify with the saying “putting up hay [3] all summer to feed it all winter.”  And for those ranches with meadow ground, hay production will likely remain a vital component of their operation. Still, it’s amazing to me to see the transformation that’s occurred as a result of ethanol subsidies and the droughts [4].

Hay prices have been skyrocketing, to the point where it’s simply no longer an economically viable feedstuff in many areas. In fact, I know an owner of a mountain ranch who puts up tremendous-quality hay. For some time now, he’s marketed his hay to horse owners on Colorado’s front range and has bought lesser-quality hay to feed his cows.

But last year, he sold the horse hay and brought in straw, corn stalks, distillers, and a cheap supplement to add moisture. It was actually cheaper for him to do that [5] and buy the feed truck then it was to feed hay to his cows.

Some feedyards have almost totally eliminated hay from their rations, and almost all are feeding far less than they did in the past.  With cow numbers declining [6] and people feeding less and less hay, one might think that hay prices would be dropping, at least in the absence of a drought. But even with today’s prices, hay is having trouble competing with other crops. Other crops are easier to raise and have less risk associated with them, so we continue to see hay ground being moved into grain production when it’s practical to do so.

This year, we’re going to see a lot of poor-quality silage put up, as the drought-affected corn is chopped or baled instead of being harvested. However, the long-term trend seems established. We’ll continue to see hay put up in those areas where hay can be produced on grasslands, but fewer and fewer acres will be put into hay production. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime down the road I might actually find myself explaining to some wide-eyed and incredulous grandkids that we actually used to feed alfalfa hay to commercial beef cows.