“I think right now guys are trying to decide whether they can afford to keep their cows.”
– MARJORIE JARVIS
At the Jarvis farm near Gladstone, there’s 1,000 alfalfa-grass hay bales that were put up this summer waiting to be sold.
The asking price for the feed-tested hay is four cents a pound. For a 1,600-pound bale, that’s $64 per bale.
So, if hay is going to be short this year, why hasn’t anybody snapped it up?
The reason, said Marjorie Jarvis, is that the hay crop in her area was reasonably good, and most people have their winter’s supply already socked away.
Ranchers further afield have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, and are thinking hard about how best to get their cattle through the winter.
“I think right now guys are trying to decide whether they can afford to keep their cows,” she said.
“I also think a lot of guys are waiting to see how their crops play out, because they might be able to cut green feed and then see what happens after that.”
As of last Thursday, there were 119 listings on the Manitoba Hay Listings website, a free advertising service offered by the provincial government to connect buyers and sellers.
That’s down from as many as 300 in past years, according to Glenn Friesen, a MAFRI business development specialist for forages.
Asking prices are in the range of three to five cents for beef-quality hay, but lately not much has changed hands, he said. Some buyers may be hoping that an early frost will turn a lot of grain crops into cattle feed, and tilt prices more in their favour, he said.
Roger Sheldon, a MAFRI pasture and rangeland specialist based in Ste. Rose, said that apart from serious production problems in many areas, the problem is not simply a shortage of hay.
“There’s a shortage of money out there,” said Sheldon.
“It’s the economics of the beef industry. There’s getting to be a severe cash flow problem. Some guys will be selling cows before they go ahead and buy expensive hay.”
High water levels on Lake Manitoba have prevented a lot of native hay from being cut. In the Interlake, abnormal events such as the 10 to 11 inches of rain that fell in “one crack” near Cayer last week have heaped misery on ranchers still trying to crawl out from under the losses they racked up since BSE hit in 2003.
“Any time you start getting over three cents a pound for hay, it’s probably cheaper to source straw and grain for at least a portion of the winter,” he said.
Trevor Atchison, a Manitoba Cattle Producers director from Pipestone, said that rains earlier this month have helped to green up the pastures in the southwest after a dry summer, but were too late to boost hay yields.
Ironically, the four to five inches of much needed rain that fell two weeks ago means that the ground will be too wet to cut any marsh hay that is left over. For Atchison’s own operation, that means 100-odd bales are now off limits.
Grasshoppers were thick in some parts of the southwest, and they stripped the leaves off anything that hadn’t been grazed. On the west side of the province, alfalfa yields were half of previous years, or even as low as a single bale per acre, he added.
“From what I hear there’s not an abundance of (hay), and the little that is trading is expensive, so that would lead you to believe that there is a shortage,”
A one-cent difference in the per-pound price of hay may not seem like much, but it could go a long way towards explaining why some beef producers are holding back on hay purchases even this late in the game, he said.
“Once it gets over 3.5 cents – or even at three cents – it’s pretty hard for an old beef cow to make her way in the world,” he said.
“If you can buy some good hay and blend it off with poorer hay or straw to get a complete balanced ration, that’ll work. But if you have to feed a cow on four-cent-a-pound hay and that’s it all winter, boy, that’s going to be pretty tough.”
Sheldon said that beef producers faced with a shortage of feed will likely cull hard in fall so that they have less cows to overwinter, or look at feeding their animals mainly straw and grain or screening pellets with 18 pounds of alfalfa-grass hay thrown in every third day to optimize rumen function.
“If you do it every third day, the cows aren’t sitting there at the gate waiting for you to bring hay,” said Sheldon. “That’s a strategy that we’ve learned over the years with the straw-grain ration.”
Lately, he’s been sitting down with a lot of producers and using the Cowbytes computer program to figure out how much straw and grain they’ll need to stretch their hay supplies through the winter. [email protected]