Hay supplies remain tight for Texas cattle producers

Adam Russell, Texas AgriLife Today

February 21, 2024

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Hay supplies may be better than last year, but they remain extremely tight as costs for winter feeding continue to mount for Texas ranchers, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Jason Cleere, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension statewide beef cattle specialist and professor in the Texas A&M Department of Animal Science, Bryan-College Station, said hay supplies have improved but stocks are still below pre-drought averages. Back-to-back years have led to deeper culling and difficult decision making for some producers about their herds even as cow/calf prices remain historically strong.

Cleere said spotty rains delivered moisture to some parts of the state early and other areas late in the hay season last year. That provided decent early or late-season cuttings for those areas, but forage production was held back by hot, dry conditions overall.

“Texas had two rough summers, and producers can absorb a miss one year with reserves from the previous haying season, but two years in a row becomes more challenging,” he said. “We really haven’t stopped feeding hay since mid-July on our farm, and that is a challenge for producers who aren’t producing their own hay, given bale prices.”

Tight hay supplies driving prices higher

David Anderson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension economist and professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Bryan-College Station, said tight supplies and higher demand is driving prices upward. Anderson said Dec. 1 hay stocks were the third lowest on record behind 2022 and 2012, respectively.

Texas hay yields averaged 1.87 tons per acre in 2023 compared to 1.56 tons per acre in 2022, but tonnage was still below historic averages, he said. Producers had yielded 1.95 tons per acre on average since 2012.

The national price for round bales is $102, but Cleere said grass hay bales in Texas have been selling for $100-$140, or $200-$280 per ton based on quality.

Some ranchers are shipping in hay and alfalfa from out of state due to low availability locally, Cleere said. Anderson said Oklahoma hay stocks were up 97% compared to last year, while New Mexico, which produces mostly alfalfa, was up 25% and Kansas was down 12%.

“Prices are not as high as a year ago, but they are indicative of the tighter supplies and higher input costs,” Anderson said. “There are fewer cows to feed, but the costs to keep herds fed through winter after poor hay and grazing production has translated into tough decisions for some producers.”

Conditions for grazing, hay season improving

Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension forage specialist and professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Overton, said recent rainfall could alleviate some producer concerns. Storm systems that delivered moisture to much of the state could improve conditions in established cool-season forages, like winter wheat or annual ryegrass. The rain should also improve conditions as warm-season perennial grasses begin breaking dormancy this spring.

Cool-season forage conditions for some producers, especially in areas with more moisture like East Texas, were good for grazing, and the rain should help improve production, she said. However, grazing availability is a mixed bag around the state, even in East Texas where many producers may have not seeded ryegrass due to dry conditions in September and October.

In other parts of the state like the Panhandle and South Plains, sporadic soil moisture led to decent winter wheat establishment, but little production for some and failure for others. Some dry-sown fields had yet to emerge, and AgriLife Extension experts said the recent moisture may be too late to help grazing.

“The producers who planted in mid-October are having success, but I think fewer people planted this year because of drought and doubts about rainfall,” Corriher-Olson said. “But now we’re in February, and I’ve gotten calls from people wanting to plant because they are out of hay and don’t have anything to graze. The moisture will help what is up, but unfortunately, it’s too late to plant.”

The key now, she said, is to focus on what can be done to optimize hay output in 2024. Unfortunately, many forage producers have reduced fertilizer inputs or cut them completely over the previous two seasons because of high prices in 2021 and drought in 2022.

The lack of fertility and overgrazing could lead to compounding problems this season, she said. Lack of fertility, especially potassium, has led to unhealthy and thinning stands in Bermuda grass fields while overgrazing will likely result in a “bumper crop” of annual weeds.

Producers should start with a soil sample now that there is moisture to make sampling easier, she said. Analysis is the only way to know the state of soil and its ability to support warm-season perennial grass production.

Planning also will give producers time to shop around for contract fertilizer options to meet the soil fertility requirements recommended based on the soil analysis, she said. Producers should also shop around for other inputs, including herbicides, based on pests they’ve dealt with in past seasons.  

“Low fertility, unhealthy or overgrazed stands will not recover as quickly without reducing competition with weeds and feeding the grass what it needs to grow,” she said. “We will need more rain going into and during the growing season, but this moisture should bring some optimism.”

Outlook remains positive for cattle producers

Cleere said the future looks bright for cattle producers who have been able to hold and maintain good body conditions on quality cows and heifers. But balancing feeding costs with potential gains and realized sale prices for calves will be critical for short- and long-term profitability.

He recommends continued assessment of both hay rations, body conditions and potential culls of older or troublesome cows and to consider earlier weaning of calves to reduce pressure on cows.

Producers should also consider moving cattle to smaller holding locations for winter feeding to help other grazing pastures recover quicker, he said.

“In 2011, grain prices were more economical and that helped stretch hay supplies during that drought, but both are so expensive now that it makes producers walk a fine line,” he said. “But we need to stay on top of forage management and pasture recovery because ryegrasses and legumes can really take off and change things dramatically with moisture.”

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