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Drought, grasshoppers and fire: Scarce hay pushes up prices

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Drought, grasshoppers and fire: Scarce hay pushes up prices

A perfect storm that included a dry spring, early summer heat, drought, grasshopper infestations and wildfires has created a shortage of hay that is already driving up prices in the region, including western Montana. 

Hans McPherson often finds himself starting with an apology when he talks to other ranchers in the state.

The longtime Bitterroot Valley rancher and hay producer knows that even though his hay crop will come up short this year, his situation is nowhere near as dire as producers who can’t count on stored water to irrigate their crops.

“I don’t even want to tell them about my situation because theirs is much worse,” he said.

McPherson figures he’ll put up 750 to 1,000 fewer bales of hay this year as compared to last.

“I’m going to have to adjust how many cattle I can buy and feed,” he said. “I know that I will not be taking on any new hay customers. I have a handful of people who have been with me for a long time. I’ll take care of them, but the rest I just can’t do.”

Hay prices in the Bitterroot Valley are on the upswing for those lucky enough to find some to buy.

Rueben and Donna Toavs of Stevensville’s Fort Northwest have been providing an easy supply of hay to valley livestock owners for the last six years.

This year the hay they’ve been able to acquire sells as fast as it arrives — at prices almost double from last year.

“A lot of people count on us for their hay,” Donna Toavs said. “We’ve been able to keep it year-round for them, but this year I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

After being sold out, the couple did receive a truckload of hay this last week and they continue to look for more.

“We had to pay an ungodly amount for it, but we were able to furnish some hay to some people,” she said.

Some people balked when they discovered the cost was $330 a ton. Last year, the couple was selling hay from $165 to $180 a ton.

“Some people are already selling their livestock,” Toavs said. “It doesn’t pencil out if you have to buy hay at that price.”

Jared Porter does custom haying and is working to build his own herd of cattle in the Stevensville area. His phone hasn’t stopped ringing with inquiries about hay this summer.

“I get a lot of phone calls about hay,” Porter said. “I get probably 10 to 15 a day. People are in a panic because the eastern part of the state is in a drought. I’m kind of having a normal year as far as hay producing goes. As far as selling it, I can’t make enough of it.”

Porter worries that high hay prices this year may be the beginning of a vicious circle that could lead to people selling off their cattle with hay prices dropping in subsequent years after cattle numbers drop.

“It’s kind of a bad deal for everyone,” he said. “I know that if I didn’t make hay and had to buy it instead, I would have to sell all my cows. You can’t afford to pay that price for hay and stay in business.”

McPherson believes the hay shortage could turn desperate for some livestock owners this winter and next spring.

The Montana Farm Bureau president said grain farmers are being asked to either bale their straw or find someone who can do it for them so it can be used as a feed supplement this year.

“We’ve asked for ideas,” he said. “No idea is too crazy. One idea to come out is the federal government has a bazillion tons of stored powdered milk. Maybe some of that could be made into a pellet that could be used as a feed supplement.”

“There’s not going to be one silver bullet that’s going to get us out of this,” McPherson said. “There will be a lot of tiny ways that, put together, can make a difference. I believe this drought is going to be with us for awhile.”

Ravalli County Farm Bureau Federation President Brandon Braaten is working with county extension to set up a database that would connect owners of small acreages with local livestock producers in need of some additional forage.

“There are a lot of people who have moved into the valley over the last few years who have purchased small acreages,” Braaten said. “We are hoping that some of them might be willing to allow producers to graze a portion of their property to help them get by this year.”

The sudden surge in the valley’s real estate market has added to the pressures on livestock producers as new subdivisions cut into the supply of what was once productive hay ground.

“It’s great that people have the opportunity to live in an area that many consider paradise,” Braaten said. “But this year, when push comes to shove, livestock producers are going to need as much space as possible to survive. We hope people will be willing to help."

People interested in volunteering to help coordinate the project can call Braaten at 406-369-8479.

Missoula County Extension Agent Patrick Mangan said the hay shortage has been caused by the perfect storm. Much of Montana and the Dakotas have been hit by severe drought, an epic grasshopper infestation, wildfire that’s burned over thousands of acres of pasture and unusually hot temperatures that slowed growth on cool-season grasses.

“All of that is setting up a really challenging hay supply market this year,” Mangan said. “Hay prices are climbing really quickly. Even finding hay has become a real challenge.”

The heatwave that settled over western Montana in June hurt production of the type of grasses grown locally.

“Our hayfields are dominated by cool-season grasses,” Mangan said. “Fifty to 75 degrees is their sweet spot where they put out a lot of growth. That’s why they explode happy and fast in April, May and June. Once it gets above 75, they kind of go into dormancy and slow down.”

To make matters worse, this spring was unusually dry. That stunted early growth for grasses and other plants.

State government has stepped forward in an effort to help.

The Montana Department of Agriculture has established a hay hotline that can be accessed at ext.services.agr.mt.gov/Hay_List/. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks proposed haying some of its wildlife management areas.

For those producers who end up buying hay from out of state, Mangan suggests they take special care in monitoring their feed grounds to ensure they haven’t imported any new noxious weeds on their property. People can get their hay tested for nutrients through local extension service offices for $26.

“My best advice would be is if people buy hay from the same person every year, they need to get in touch with them right away,” Mangan said. “Those people who usually have hay in their barn in December and January probably won’t have it this year. You can’t count on it as business as usual.”

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