With spring green-up slowly occurring nationwide, hay production will be starting soon if it has not already begun. The droughts that have affected much of the country over the past few years have strained forage production and hay stocks. National non-alfalfa hay prices have risen to record highs indicating how tight supplies have been on strong demand as producers tried to maintain herds through the drought. With drought still impacting nearly half of the US, forage production and availability will be closely watched for its impact on the direction of the US beef herd.

Regardless of what type of pasture is harvested as hay, it’s not cheap to do so. To cut, rake, and bale an acre of hay has direct cash costs of approximately $23/acre ($38.40/acre in total costs). Application of fertilizer, herbicides, seed, and twine/net wrap are in addition to the machinery costs. While hay yields are variable, the direct machinery costs alone are less than $10/ton for a 2.5 ton/acre yield to approximately $15/ton for a 1.5 ton/acre yield.

Non-alfalfa hay yields haven’t increased much in the US since the 1980s, although there is a lot of variability in that time frame. The increase in overall non-alfalfa hay production has been more from the increased acreage even as the total cattle inventory fell by over 23.5 million head and 8 million fewer beef cows. The additional non-alfalfa hay production has led to there being 2.67 tons per US beef cow in 2013 compared to 1.37 tons per US beef cow in 1980 (1.94 tons/Louisiana beef cow compared 0.86 tons/Louisiana beef cow in 2013 and 1980, respectively). Even when accounting for an estimated 213 pound increase in cow weights since the early 1980s and cows consuming 2 percent of body weight in forage daily, the increased hay production per cow results in a significant increase in the number of days of that beef cows could be fed hay. In 1980, non-alfalfa hay production could feed the average US beef cow 134 days compared to approximately 216 days in 2013 (84 days in Louisiana in 1980 and 156 days in 2013).

The increased hay availability per cow has roughly doubled the machinery costs per beef cow associated with hay production. Some hay wastage would be expected that would reduce hay availability per cow, but this would result in higher costs per cow associated with hay production. Reducing the storage and feeding losses would not only bring down machinery costs despite the initial investment costs but also reduce the how much forage is harvested as hay. Focusing on quality over quantity will also result in lower supplementation costs.