Hay supplies remain short and prices continue to rise as Texas cattle ranchers try to feed herds through winter, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.
The 2022 drought and subsequent poor hay production resulted in stressed hay supplies going into winter, according to AgriLife Extension specialists. Those short hay supplies and demand have now pushed hay bale prices toward record high prices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Jan. 27 Texas Hay Direct Report priced large round bales of good-to-premium Bermuda grass between $70 and $175 each with prices for the same quality hay reaching $410 per ton in the Panhandle. Most counties across the state are reporting decent quality bales above $100.
Deeper than usual culling in preparation of that winter feeding shrunk Texas cattle numbers and the national herd to lows not seen since 2012, said David Anderson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension economist, Bryan-College Station. Cattle producers expect good calf prices in the future but feeding cows until spring forages are ready to graze is the concern now.
Anderson said drought and high fertilizer prices were the two major factors that led to near-record low hay production. Grass needs soil moisture to grow during the summer hay season, but pastures also need fertilizer, especially nitrogen, to maximize growth and yields.
Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension forage specialist, Overton, said $160 per bale was around the breakeven point during the 2022 season for hay producers who maintained pastures with average inputs due to the cost of fertilizer, weed and pest control applications. High commodity prices for grains, which are ingredients in supplemental feeds added alongside hay rations during winter, are exacerbating tight hay supplies.
“It’s no shock that hay prices are so high,” she said. “The drought, poor range and pasture conditions and high feed costs have all worked together against producers.”
Hay yields, supplies near 50-year low
Anderson said Texas pastures produced the lowest amount of hay since 2011. Hay yields averaged nearly 1.95 tons per acre over the last decade but totaled 1.56 tons per acre in 2022. Texas produced 4.44 million tons of hay in 2011 compared to 6.5 million tons in 2022.
The number of hay acres cut and baled was also down to 4.19 million compared to a 10-year average of almost 5 million acres.
U.S. hay production followed the Texas trend. According to the December 2022 hay stock reports, the 71.9 million tons of hay on hand was the smallest amount since the USDA began tracking forage supplies in 1973. Texas hay supplies were 37% below the December 2021 report and other Plains states like Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska were all at least 30% below their stocks last year. Hay stocks in southeastern states were also down except for North Carolina.
“So, you have less hay production in Texas, but you also have less production in all the states around you that might be a source to have bales shipped in,” Anderson said. “Usually, one region is dealing with drought and lower supplies and producers can go elsewhere for relief. Having less hay everywhere at the beginning of winter puts a strain on producers, even if there are fewer cattle to feed.”
Long-term outlook depends on rain, pasture management
Corriher-Olson said supplies are the concern now, but that pasture management will determine the long-term production in pastures. Many hay producers avoided input costs like fertilizer and herbicides during the drought. Some pastures received reduced fertilizer applications while other fields received nothing.
The reduced management and overgrazing during the drought could cost producers this season, she said.
Fertilizer prices have fallen some, but they remain relatively high, she said. Much of the state, especially the hay-producing region of East Texas, received good winter moisture and is poised for production while other parts of the state like West Texas, South Texas and the Panhandle remain relatively dry.
Long-term outlooks show the state has equal chances of moisture or drought until July, Corriher-Olson said. East Texas has higher chances of receiving rainfall after July.
Producers who maintained their pastures and avoided overgrazing in 2022 should be in good shape if good soil moisture is available, she said. Fields that were not fertilized or sprayed for weeds and/or overgrazed could have a difficult time bouncing back.
“Hay production in 2023 will depend on management in 2022,” she said. “Fields that were not managed will have a harder time recovering even with moisture and fertilizer because the first thing to respond will be annual weeds, and they will be competing with perennial forages.”
Whatever the case may be, Corriher-Olson said hay producers should be ready to capitalize on appropriate management, whether that is applying fertilizer or monitoring and treating weeds and pests like fall armyworms.
Cutting corners now could hurt future calf crops
Jason Cleere, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist, Bryan-College Station, said high grain prices have compounded the short supply of hay and high winter feed prices. In 2011, ranchers could rely on heavier rations of grain-based feed and less hay to meet the daily nutritional needs for cattle.
However, global events and the drought of 2022 have pushed grain prices much higher during this current drought cycle, he said.
Most producers culled their herd deeper than usual to reduce the number of mouths they must feed through winter. Some producers are looking for other supplemental feed options to cut costs where they can, but many options relate to availability and weighing the logistical cost and capabilities of each operation.
Whatever producers incorporate into their winter feeding plans, Cleere said they need to maintain cow body condition scores well enough to ensure those cows are ready to breed following this spring calving season.
“It’s a challenging year, but indications point toward extremely good prices for next year’s calf crop,” he said. “I suspect producers are going to be short on hay if we don’t get an early spring green-up. My main message would be: Don’t cut too many corners now that you can’t take advantage of good calf prices in the future.”
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
Areas received moisture in the form of rain and snow with some locations reporting up to 1.25 inches. Some areas remained dry. Producers were topdressing wheat with fertilizer before the rain. Wheat looked good for the most part and was growing due to warmer temperatures, but a few areas reported poor wheat conditions. Topsoil moisture was good. Rangeland and pasture grasses looked poor and remained dormant. Stocker cattle were in good condition and being fed hay and cake. Hay supplies were short, and producers were hoping wheat pasture would come on to provide grazing. Producers were ramping up feed rations in preparation of colder temperatures in the forecast.
In the upper end of the reporting area soil moisture improved significantly over the past few weeks with 2-5 inches of rain reported in some areas. Fieldwork was slowed by rainfall and standing moisture. Producers made progress on row crop and rice field planting preparations where they could access fields. Most producers completed fertilizer applications and were getting equipment ready to plant. Producers were holding off on corn planting with the expected freeze in some areas. However, corn planting could start if conditions allow. Some rangeland and pasture were greening up but freezing temperatures could sting grasses. Livestock were in good condition, and calving season was starting slowly. Heavy hay and protein feeding continued. Local auctions reported strong prices.
Conditions were wet and soggy. Many counties were experiencing excessive amounts of rainfall. Marion County reported 7 inches in the past week. One local cattle market did not hold its weekly sale due to rain. More rain and cold weather were in the forecast. Cool-season forages were growing better in some areas. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good overall. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate to surplus. Livestock were in fair to good condition with supplemental feeding taking place.
The district received 3-9 inches of snow, which should help the topsoil some. Farmers were starting to make planting decisions for spring crops. Some winter wheat was being grazed. Cattle were in fair condition and receiving supplemental feed.
Most of the district received 2-5 inches of snow. The moisture could help the wheat crops, but soil moisture remains very short to short. Farming activity was minimal with some spring pre-plant and fallow tillage. Rangeland and pasture conditions were very poor to poor. Cattle on rangeland were being fed.
Daytime temperatures remained low throughout the week, never rising above 60 degrees, with nighttime temperatures in the upper 20s and lower 30s. The district received limited rain, up to half an inch in some areas, which should improve soil moisture, and wheat and rangeland conditions. Extreme wind brought a strong cold front. Small amounts of frozen precipitation occurred, with small amounts of snow accumulation occurring in the higher elevations. Hard freezes were widespread across the area. Winter wheat was in very good shape for this time of year. Rangeland and pasture conditions remained good. Livestock were in poor to fair condition, and producers continued supplemental feeding programs. Most pecan producers were pruning trees and preparing orchard floors for the first irrigation. Some pecan orchards were still harvesting. Most cotton was ginned. Cotton farmers were preparing fields for planting, but some acres were expected to go to alfalfa, wheat and/or oats. Alfalfa bales were stored or being loaded and hauled out.
Light showers increased topsoil moisture. The winter wheat crop was in mostly fair to good condition. Fields were being prepared for spring planting. Cattle were in decent shape as ranchers have culled down to a manageable level. Wheat and oat pastures were short and still providing some much-needed grazing for cattle, but producers continued to provide supplemental feed.
The district was dealing with heavy rains and saturated ground. Some fields looked like lakes. There were concerns about erosion from runoff in some fields. More rain was in the forecast. Farmers want to start working the ground for rice, but conditions were way too wet. Oats, rye and wheat pastures should have plenty of soil moisture. Cattle prices were up slightly. Rangeland and pasture conditions were very poor to excellent.
Conditions were dry and windy. Temperatures were above average before a cold front brought cooler temperatures and drizzly rain. Up to half an inch of rain was reported in some areas. Rangeland conditions continued to decline from lack of moisture. Wheat and oats were progressing and responding to recent moisture. Irrigated crops were doing fairly well, and dryland crops would benefit from more moisture. Pasture conditions remained poor due to dormant grasses, and cattle were in fair to poor condition on average and receiving supplemental feed. Fields were being prepared for spring planting. Lambing and kidding began. Cooler temperatures and rainfall were in the forecast this week.
Northern parts of the district reported adequate to very short moisture levels while western and eastern areas reported very short soil moisture levels. Southern areas reported adequate soil moisture. Temperatures were cooler, and some scattered rains delivered trace amounts of rainfall up to 1.25 inches. Winter pastures failed to emerge. Overall rangeland and pasture conditions were improving in some areas and continued to decline in drier areas. Some pastures were very poor due to drought and freeze, and others looked bare. Pastures in better condition were being grazed, and black brush was starting to bloom early. Grasses that were growing were burned back by a freeze in northern parts of the district. Supplemental feeding of livestock continued. Hay and feed prices were high, and hay supplies were short with local producers reporting square bales of hay selling for $14.50 and round bales for $160. Cattle were in fair condition. An increased number of cattle were marketed, and prices were steady. Producers continued to prepare for spring planting, and some began planting corn. Grain sorghum plantings were expected to follow corn. Crop plantings were expected to accelerate over the next two weeks. Crops under pivots looked good. Vegetables, citrus, sugarcane and fall-planted corn were being harvested. Citrus producers were hoping for higher yields as trees continue to recover from Winter Storm Uri.