Hay production is in full swing in Nebraska, and the issue facing operators from across the state is the same: drought. Lack of moisture and an early, warm spring has left many producers with decreased yields, and an outlook that depicts a continued decrease in production.
Nebraska is one of the top 10 alfalfa producing states, and much of the hay that is produced is used within the state to feed cattle. This year the first cutting is well ahead of schedule, with some producers already nearing a second cutting.
"The first cutting of alfalfa was 81 percent complete, well ahead of seven last year and 25 days ahead of 18 average. Concerns continued over insect activity. Alfalfa rated one percent very poor, nine percent poor, 31 percent fair, 52 percent good, and 7 percent excellent, below 74 percent good to excellent last year and average," according to the May 27 USDA NASS Crop Program Report for Nebraska.
In Southeast Nebraska, the alfalfa crop came on very quickly and early. "We had very little weevil problems, but we had some aphids. However, the predators did a good job of taking care of those, and those who did spray probably wasted their money," said Paul Hay, extension educator serving Gage County and Southeastern Nebraska for UNL.
It was also cut early on the western half of Nebraska. "I've seen a lot of the alfalfa being cut earlier, which is just fine. That's important because it's an early spring this year. In order to get similar quality hay for what someone had in previous years cutting it earlier will be important. Once it gets more mature, the quality goes down," said Jerry D Volesky, Professor, West Central Research & Extension Center, UNL.
Yields for the first cutting averaged around 1-1.5 tons per acre for the first cutting, and around 1 ton per acre for the second. The lack of moisture is expected to continue to hinder production throughout the rest of the season.
"Once the water is gone, it's a problem. I just looked at the long range forecast, to get a picture of the way we may go. Our short term doesn't look very good. We aren't going to get a lot of rain. It's supposed to be more normal roughly 30 days down the road. That may mean we get a better crop off the native hay, but the alfalfa will be tough. During the July and August growing period it takes a full 6 inches to get a ton of alfalfa. At best we might get to average, but I don't think we will get there," said Hay.
Cutting of wild hay is underway as well. "Wild hay harvest had begun at five percent completed. Wild hay conditions rated one percent very poor, five percent poor, 24 percent fair, 68 percent good, and 2 percent excellent, equal to last year's good to excellent," the crop report stated.
Hay said, "Native grass still has adequate grass that's growing, but not very fast. We are still fairly early. If we can get some rain we might get a more normal cutting."
The production is also down for traditional hay fields. "The brome started and then stalled. Some fields that are predominantly brome with some bluegrass look more like bluegrass fields because the brome didn't get tall enough. Yields are down to the 3/4-1 ton range when they are normally 2-2.5 tons per acre. We have a little less than half of production. That has been very disappointing," said Hay.
Volesky added, "I've heard some people comment about grass hay, and the growth and production is just not there. Some of it may be due to early cutting, but also we have had some warm temperatures through May, and those hay meadows do better when it is cooler in May. They are in a bit more advanced stage of maturity, but didn't grow as tall or big or previous years."
The drought is affecting areas all over the state, but it is worse on the western half. Much of this area is where pastures are grown.
"Pasture and range conditions declined and rated two percent very poor, 10 percent poor, 40 percent fair, 44 percent good, and 4 percent excellent, below 74 percent good to excellent last year and average," the crop progress report stated.
The pasture in the West is used to graze cattle throughout the year, and without this valuable pasture, cattle producers will be forced to buy high priced forage.
"The big issue going forth is going to be the rainfall and potential for drought. For the Sandhills, this next month of June, the rainfall that occurs is very critical for the pasture production. Most of that production comes from warm season grasses that typically grow them. This will significantly reduce the amount of grazing they have in those pastures. In the western part of the state and panhandle where they have dry conditions now, that has a big impact on what kind of pasture they have already. With those dry conditions, the hay, grass or alfalfa, will keep those prices strong and high because it's valuable," said Volesky.
High hay prices last year encouraged many producers to sell more hay than they usually would. "There are a lot of producers who over-sold due to high prices, and now they are having to buy hay for more than they sold it for. At this time there is some hay from last year still available in areas of Nebraska. However, the new crop hay will probably be spoken for pretty quickly," he said.
The demand for local hay will continue to stay strong. "There is local demand, and I do not see hay prices here changing very much. I don't see them coming back down, which we originally thought might happen. Right now I don't see that happening," said Hay.
Volesky agreed, "It's a pretty safe bet that hay will continue to be competitive. They need more rainfall to get more production. That's pretty straight forward. The rainfall patterns will change or adjust what happens."