hay harvest

Memorial Day was a good weather day for hay harvest in Warren County near Kirkwood, Ill.

Illinois is in the middle of a serious hay shortage that will likely stretch throughout the year and into 2021, producers say.

“Last year was the worst I ever saw, and this year’s worse,” said Doug Hanson, president of the Illinois Forage & Grassland Council.

Making hay has been a difficult proposition for a while, and it’s not getting any easier.

“It’s been extremely difficult to get new stands established each of the last three years,” said Hanson, who farms near Brighton, in Iroquois County, Illinois. “When we do get new stands established, these heavy, wet seasons are extremely difficult on the alfalfa fields themselves. It makes it difficult to make quality dry hay.”

Dan Schetter has gotten only limited work done in his Macoupin County fields.

“It’s been fairly wet,” he said. “We put up some wet hay. It’s not very good drying weather. We did put up a couple hundred wet bales already.”

Schetter said his clover has had good growth, but he hasn’t been able to dry any. And he has some concerns about compaction.

“What we did bale, we probably shouldn’t have been in the field,” he said. “We didn’t make big ruts, but you could tell we were there.”

Larry Hendrix’s hay looks pretty good, but he is encountering some of the same problems as other producers who are being kept out of their fields.

“For a really wet and cold spring, it doesn’t look too bad,” said Hendrix, who farms near Buckingham, in Kankakee County. “We’re considerably behind where we’d like to be. We had a fair amount of winter damage in some older fields. We planted another acre of alfalfa that’s off running and looks good.”

But the problems with getting good stands and maintaining existing forage are continuing as producers look toward the summer and beyond. The shortage has affected prices, especially for quality hay.

“The good hay is holding its price,” said Don Brown. Brown grows hay on his farm near Davis, in Stephenson County, and markets hay throughout the region.

“A year ago we went through the winter and went into the spring with 60% winter kill,” he said. “We’re already short on acres. And it’s been so wet, the alfalfa doesn’t want to grow. It just doesn’t respond.”

Hay producers, cattlemen and dairy producers are all scrambling to secure a consistent supply. While many won’t be needing hay until the winter months, they are concerned about whether there will be affordable hay later this year and early in 2021.

“There is a hay shortage. We have had a hay shortage for at least 18 months,” Hanson said. “Springs have been so wet it’s hard to get them established. It’s hard to even get into the field. This year we started off with what we thought was going to be a warm spring, and it turned out to be a cold spring. Existing stands and new establishments have not grown well.”

He is aware of virtually unprecedented troubles in the hay fields of Illinois. Hanson told of a producer near Manteno who has raised alfalfa for more than 50 years and never had to replant until this year.

The troubles affect both alfalfa and grass-legume mixes.

“I’m a huge fan of recommending a combination of legumes and grasses. That’s what we promote,” Hanson said. “Generally, one will do better than the other. This year both are struggling.”

Some brokers have been forced to truck in hay from other areas to meet customer demand. Brown has brought some in from Kansas and South Dakota.

New laws that restrict hours drivers are able to stay on the road have exacerbated the problem. Growers in those areas who aren’t dealing with the humidity and moisture found in Illinois can raise good hay with irrigation and ship it here. But it comes at an increasing cost.

“Our trucking laws have changed. That’s another dynamic,” Brown said. “Shipping to the Midwest to provide dairies with more stable product has been difficult because now the truckers are only able to go so many hours before they have to stop and rest. The cost of trucking could easily be 50% more.”

The shortage has been alleviated somewhat due to problems with planting grain.

“This past year because of the prevent plant there are pockets where there is a lot of wet forage available, like baleage or chopped feed,” Hanson said. “That took some pressure off forage. But there is an extreme shortage of dry, quality hay in Illinois.”

Brown said as the shortage continues and prices increase, some livestock producers will continue to face a dilemma.

“The people who are buying it, at some point they’re just not going to be able to do it,” he said.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.