Those watching the hay market are holding their breath, and keeping a close eye on the long-range forecast, as the clock starts ticking on the province’s potential forage harvest.
Manitoba’s bone-dry start has had both forage experts and producers concerned the province may be in for another season like 2019 — when low yields and drought conditions sent hay prices soaring and municipalities into states of agricultural disaster.
Why it matters: Sky-high hay prices and low feed supplies became the norm in 2019, forcing many producers in hard-hit areas to cull herds. The parallels to this spring have not gone unnoticed.
Prior to the promise of heavy snowfall, thanks to an Alberta clipper in mid-April, most of southern Manitoba had seen less than 30 per cent normal precipitation between November to April. In the Portage area, residents had seen about 16 per cent of normal precipitation, according to Shawn Cabak, livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development.
“That gives us five months of super, super-low moisture, which, I mean, a lot of the pasture and hay counts on that to kind of get things started, to kind of recharge some of that moisture reserve and to refill dugouts,” he said.
Water sources, whether dugouts or wells, may run low this year, he said — a concern that has echoed year after year in some areas as Manitoba’s dry spell stretches on.
The poor start is compounded by the cumulative stress of Manitoba’s dry trend, he also noted. While 2020 inched closer to normal forage yield than the two years before, all three of Manitoba’s most recent growing seasons have been generally dry.
“We’ve had our forage resources pushed to the limit for a number of years, so what that means is they’ve been stressed. They’re probably not as healthy as they should be or that we would like them to be, so that just reduces their overall forage potential,” Cabak said.
In the northwest — some of the only areas of the province to climb past 40 per cent of normal winter precipitation, concerns also remain. Moisture in the Dauphin area is adequate, according to Pam Iwanchysko, who typically serves as the provincial livestock specialist for the area, although snowfall in the wider region still fell well short of typical.
Dugouts around Ste. Rose du Lac were “moderate to full” as of early April, she said, but there was “no run-off anywhere to speak of. Creeks and rivers are just trickling.”
Temperatures have not been high enough to show regrowth yet on pastures or hayfields, she said, although pastures were worryingly bare after being pushed hard last fall.
As of March 31, almost all of agro-Manitoba was at least in a state of severe drought, according to the Canadian Drought Monitor. In central and southwestern Manitoba, along with the southeastern edge of Saskatchewan, that classification bumped up to extreme drought, the only areas in Canada to be counted as such.
John McGregor, hay expert with the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, said the province is “almost pretty well guaranteed” to see a reduced hay harvest, even with a weather event bringing moisture. First cut, typically the most robust, has already got off to a challenging start, he noted.
Extended weather models from areas such as North Dakota suggest dry conditions will continue well into June, he said.
“When you see that kind of a forecast and they are that close to us, you start to think that maybe we’re in a situation where, although we’re dry right now, that dry condition is going to continue for quite a while,” he said. “That itself is going to have an effect on the forage production.”
McGregor suggested available forage may be 20 to 25 per cent short this year without substantial precipitation.
Weather in the coming weeks will start to hone in on where most forage sellers will fall on that spectrum.
Weighing in alternatives
McGregor also noted a general increase in producers turning to feed alternatives to avoid buying hay. Manitoba’s spate of dry years have had more producers reaching for annual greenfeed and silage.
“Those are some possible strategies,” Cabak said. “Your annuals are more moisture efficient than your perennial forages.”
Current grain prices will do little to help, however, should producers be scrambling for another alternative in their winter ration come fall. Grain prices have increased substantially since last fall, Cabak acknowledged.
“They’re significantly higher than they were over the last three, four years,” Cabak said. “It is still an option, but it’s going to increase the cost of the rations significantly compared to where we were.”
“There’s a cut-off point there,” McGregor noted. “When it gets to a certain number, then producers start looking at culling their herd, trying to get rid of the cows that aren’t producing, that kind of thing. We’re going to go through all those types of scenarios as we move further and further towards fall and people make decisions.
“We saw that once before. When hay prices got to a certain level, beef producers stopped buying.”
Producers should be planning out their alternatives now, Cabak noted. Other than feed alternatives, management practices such as rotational grazing or easing up on stocking rates may also help stretch pasture, he said.
“It’s only the beginning of April, so you hate to push that panic button too early,” he said. “But at the same time, this is one of the driest winters that I’ve seen. Last year was a record-dry growing season for Winnipeg. Portage area is very dry. Central (Manitoba) is quite dry. That Interlake area was dry, especially the south Interlake, so there are some really dry parts of the province.”
Stable so far
Hay prices have not yet jumped, despite another year of less than stellar signals on pasture turnout, McGregor noted. In some cases, in fact, prices have decreased slightly.
Poor spring growing conditions have repeatedly led hay watchers like McGregor, Iwanchysko and Cabak to warn against premature turnout in recent years. Producers have reported extended feeding seasons into the spring as pastures have failed to green.
At the same time, McGregor said, most producers should be carrying enough feed to bring herds through to mid-May, and feed supplies this year were helped by a mild winter.
He has also seen fewer listings, he noted, suggesting that those with hay for sale in January and February have since moved that product, leaving only more recent listings.
As to the coming hay market, “likely it’s going to be at least this price,” McGregor said. “It might go up a bit if the drought continues and the production drops off significantly. But, again, I hope producers are going to look at what we have right now and are making plans today for an event that may or may not happen come fall.”
In February, the forage and grassland association reported prices from four to six cents a pound for beef-quality alfalfa-grass mixes and five to eight for good-quality alfalfa-grass. Pure alfalfa sat from five to 7.5 cents a pound, with dairy quality coming in at eight to 12 cents a pound.