Demand high for Montana hay; buyers pay top dollar

He’s the guy on the “other side.” The one whose grass is greener. And it turns out that when pastures in neighboring states go brown, hay farmer Chris Skorupa’s wallet sprouts lettuce, too.

Montana hay is selling for a premium this year in drought-bit Western states and the Midwest, where lingering winter temperatures wilted spring alfalfa like bagged spinach from a deep freeze.

Depending on quality, producers are getting $180 to $250 a ton. Shipping not included. Irrigated hay is rolling out of the state every direction but north.

“It’s really good, phenomenally good hay this year,” said Skorupa, who splits his time between the family farm and his Beartooth Fertilizer company between Roberts and Red Lodge. “The stuff had slower growth out of the gate, but it didn’t hurt anything.”

Most days, he takes a turn cutting alfalfa on the family farm, while his father bales and his 90-year-old grandfather applies water drawn from the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Along this stretch of the river near Bridger, the fields are the deep green of 68-day corn, sugar beets and alfalfa. The non-irrigated hills are sage and beige.

If there’s a dirt bike racing up Highway 312, it’s likely driven by old farmer in rubber boots with a muddy irrigation spade poking upward like a mast.

Every now and then a semitrailer rolls through, looking for another load of hay. At Skorupa’s, the trucks are mostly hauling to central and southwestern Idaho, which has been gripped by severe drought. Twin Falls has

received less than three inches of rain since the end of January. That’s put the Idaho dairy industry in a pinch. Dairy cattle require the highest quality hay for milk production and Idaho has raised little this summer.

Cow-calf operations also are hurting for hay. Premium timothy grass hay was selling for $275 a ton in Idaho last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Market News. Even mixed grass hay of fair quality is selling for $165 a ton.

Hay demand is high in most farm states because of persistent drought now in its third year. A rancher usually has hay stacked to keep his cows fed for several months to a year if the sky dries up. Many ranchers in Montana had enough hay from a bumper crop in 2011 to keep their cattle fed through the early spring of this year. But once the haystack disappears, it’s time to either pay the dinner bill or begin liquidating livestock.

Howdy Hildebrand is a have-hay-will-travel kind of guy who farms near Fromberg. In 2011, he was trucking hay 1,400 miles one way to Texas, where drought was forcing a massive sell-off of hungry cows and calves that the American beef industry still hasn’t fully

recovered from.

Prices that summer ranged from $110 to $150 a ton for hay good enough to keep a cow in milk and her young calf bulking up to 450 to 650 pounds in preparation for sale. This year Hildebrand is selling hay into Colorado and Idaho. After continuous dry years, hay demand has increased and so has the price.

Roughly 60 percent of Colorado is in extreme drought, according to U.S. Drought Monitor. Large square bales of alfalfa were selling for $250 to $300 a ton, depending on quality. Large grass bales were selling for $200 to $215 a ton, though USDA Market News noted that prices were beginning to soften.

Right now in the Yellowstone drainage, hay trade is closer to normal, as regular rains throughout summer have boosted pastures and given dryland farmers something to bale.

“Here in the Clarks Fork Valley, a good average is $135 to $140 for general hay, decent hay,” Hildebrand said.

Drought clobbered southern Montana in 2012 and many farms and ranches failed to produce any hay if their land wasn’t irrigated, Hildebrand said. By last winter, ranchers with hungry cows and no bales stacked were turning to the north for hay, traveling as far as Canada to get it.

“Last year nobody had anything,” Hildebrand said. “The further north you went, there was all kinds of hay, but it seemed like every 50 miles you drove it went up $20 a ton.”

John Mahon, who farms hay near Billings, has been selling his crop into Wisconsin and Minnesota. Drought hit the area last year when Wisconsin hay production was down to 37 percent of normal. Cold, wet weather destroyed the 2013 crop. Hay in storage was at a 50-year low.

Local hay buyers won’t show up until fall, Skorupa said. Most ranches managed to cut a dryland hay crop this summer, unlike last year, when the drought-stunted grasses weren’t worth the trouble for many. Those buyers will be looking to supplement whatever they’ve raised.

Still, the burn of the 2012 drought hasn’t left southern Montana. Few if any ranchers have hay stacked from previous years. After chewing through reserves last year, ranchers will be thinking about running short again.

A meal ticket of $135 to $140 a ton for cow-calf operations is likely.

Even Skorupa is concerned about getting caught short on hay for his own cattle next spring. The green side of the equation is the place to be.