Perhaps more than any other season, winter is a period for reflection. The USDA helps in this regard with their bevy of January production reports.

I, like many people, have sometimes looked at elements of these reports and wondered, “How can that be?” For sure, there are times when they probably miss the mark or make a calculation error. Sometimes methodology can be questioned, but let’s also keep in mind that quantifying forage production across the U.S. is a daunting task.

Methodology aside, there is still great value in these reports from a trend and comparison standpoint. That’s really where our focus needs to go. The USDA reports will never be perfect, but they’re the best information we have, and I would hate to see them completely go away.

December hay stocks: USDA pegged December 1 hay stocks at 95.8 million tons, up only 0.9 percent from one year ago. This was the highest December hay stock total since 2010 when supplies reached 102 million tons. Recall, however, that supply depleted quickly with some widespread drought conditions in 2011 and 2012. The 2016 year-over-year boost in stocks was less than 1 million tons compared to a nearly 3-million-ton rise from December 2014 to 2015.

Individual states varied in the direction and amount of hay stocks. In the West, net decreases were seen in California (down 5 percent), Arizona (down 3 percent), and Colorado (down 13 percent). Drought-ravaged states in the Southeast had significant declines with Alabama suffering a whopping 34 percent drop in year-over-year supplies. In the Midwest, those states with supply reductions were Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, and Illinois.

Harvested hay acres: USDA dropped its 2016 harvested hay acreage number to 53.5 million, down nearly 1 million acres from 2015. Nearly all of the acreage reduction came in the form of alfalfa, dropping from 17.8 to 16.9 million acres. Most of the major alfalfa producing states registered declines in acreage except for Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Those states with the largest alfalfa acreage reductions were Iowa (down 220,000), Wisconsin (down 200,000), and South Dakota (down 200,000).

New seedings of alfalfa in the U.S. during 2016 totaled 2.3 million acres, down from 2.5 million acres in 2015. Wisconsin led the new seeding decline, down 120,000 acres from 2015.

Hay production: The 2016 production of all hay types in the U.S. totaled 134.8 million tons, up only 0.2 percent from 2015. Total alfalfa production declined by 1.2 percent down to 58.3 million tons.

In some states, alfalfa hay production was cut significantly in 2016 compared to 2015. Included in this group were South Dakota (down 780,000 tons), Iowa (down 693,000 tons), Colorado (down 490,000 tons), North Dakota (down 470,000 tons), and California (down 411,000 tons). In some cases, the lower production was caused by acreage reductions, others by reduced yield, and some a combination of both relative to 2015.

Bottom line: Growing dairy and beef herds, improved milk and beef prices, a strong hay export market, and fewer alfalfa acres (both established and new seedings) are signs that hay prices likely won’t retreat further in 2017 and probably will strengthen, at least modestly.

This editorial appeared in the February 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.