Hay harvest shows weaknesses across multiple agriculture industries
Crop progress and condition as of Aug. 7
Second cutting 91 percent complete
Third cutting 20 percent complete
Pasture and range conditions
Very poor 3 percent
Poor 6 percent
Fair 25 percent
Good 56 percent
Excellent 10 percent
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Colorado Department of Ag Market News Service
There’s nothing quite like being a farmer, Mike Schuppe said over the buzz of machinery as he worked the hay fields at his farm northeast of Sterling. There’s nothing like the hard work it takes to put up a good crop. But even the best crop — and the most optimistic farmer — can be crushed by a bad market.
In the 30 years Schuppe has farmed, he’s never seen demand as low as it is for this year’s hay crop.
Schuppe said hay prices are the worst he’s seen in nearly a decade. For a producer that puts up 1,000 acres of alfalfa and 1,000 acres of grass hay, that means he could see half the income he typically does.
There are a few things causing it, he said, but it all comes back to the same thing.
“Everything is in a downward trend right now. You don’t have a chance of making it on any (commodity),” Schuppe said.
That means there’s more feed — corn, wheat and hay — coming onto the market and less interest from dairies and feedlots in buying it in bulk.
Both milk and beef prices are low. Milk plunged to $14.80 per 100 pounds, a huge drop from its $25 high in September 2014, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Beef also is down, with feeder cattle prices down about $100 from where they were this time last year.
For farmers such as Schuppe, who markets his alfalfa and grass hay to dairies, feedlots and niches such as dairy goat farms, these conditions turn a big harvest into a big headache.
Hay prices in northeastern Colorado are $8 per bale for supreme quality alfalfa and $6 per bale for premium grass hay as of Aug. 7, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Colorado Department of Ag Market News Service. Other qualities of hay were not reported.
Schuppe is in the middle of his third cutting of alfalfa and his second cutting of grass hay. He’s putting up big yields and good quality, and while in the past this would have meant his bigger customers would buy in bulk — sometimes up to a year’s worth of hay at once — now many are also hurting from low commodity prices and buying a month or two’s worth of hay at a time.
Now he’s trying to figure out how best to store large quantities of hay and protect them from the weather, since wet hay turns into moldy hay.
Keenesburg’s Marc Arnusch tries to produce dairy-quality alfalfa, which is typically high quality, since it makes up the core of dairies’ feed programs. This season, unpredictable rain has kept much of his crop from meeting that standard. When his alfalfa doesn’t hit that bar, he has to market it to other end users, such as feedlots or the grinder alfalfa market, which don’t pay as well.
Arnusch, like many others, is worried about what 2017 will bring.
“Our belt can’t really go any tighter than it already is,” Arnusch said.
These low prices are especially discouraging for some, such as Jim and Jeri Wall of Sleepy Teepee Ranch in Longmont, who are enjoying record-breaking years. The Walls have only done the first cutting so far and have put up about 15,000 bales of hay, the largest harvest they’ve ever seen. They’ve only been able to sell around 4,000 bales so far.
Jim said the exceptional harvest isn’t just happening at Sleepy Teepee — it’s happening at farms all around them, so many of their customers, who would come to them after they ran out of hay to feed their horses, have more than they ever had.
“You’re glad that you have a lot, but at the same time everybody does, so the market is stagnant here,” Jeri said. “Everybody’s barns are full.”
The Walls grow primarily for the horse market. Their mix of grasses and alfalfa is popular among many of their long-term clients and Jeri’s horses. They also use the hay for the miniature donkeys and other livestock around Sleepy Teepee Ranch.
Jim jokes that his poor cattle only ever get to eat the hay he messes up on — the stuff that gets too much moisture or gets some weeds mixed in — because he’s always had to sell all of the good hay they produce.
This year, there’s too much to get rid of. While the enormous stacks of hay that spill out of their barns won’t bring the Walls relief this year, Jim smiled when he said at least his cows will reap the benefit. ❖
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign SB 21-87, known as the Farm Workers Bill of Rights, though much of the content will be decided through the rulemaking process.