Dry summer cuts hay supply
The worst drought since 1988. The highest hay prices ever. But it’s not as bad here as it is in some places.
In a winter rich with snow, last summer’s lack of rain may be a distant memory for most Forest Lake residents. But for local hay buyers and sellers, the topic is very much on their minds.
At Bostrom’s Hay Auction in Isanti on Saturday, one lot of 36 second-cutting small square bales, “put up exactly right” according to the auctioneer, sold for $7.60 a bale.
On a beautiful blue-sky day, with bright sun reflecting off the snow, pick-up trucks lined the road as horse and cattle owners bid on hay.
The $7.60 was the top price paid for small square bales, but several lots of good horse hay sold for about $6.70 a bale. Four lots of 42 bales each, from a Wisconsin dairy farmer who sold his herd, brought $5.50 to $5.70 per bale.
Two lots of “bottom bales,” which may have absorbed ground moisture from their position at the bottom of the stack, sold for $3.10 and $3.80 per bale. Other bottom bales went for $5.90; a lot that had been rained on sold for $4.90.
Because horses can’t tolerate mold or dust, horse owners are willing to pay more for top-quality hay. Cattle owners pick up the lesser-quality hay for a lower price.
Livestock owners who have special hay-moving equipment can save money by buying large round bales, which can weigh 1,000 pounds. A spike mounted on the back of a tractor or the front of a skid-steer loader is used to move the bales.
Bostrom’s auction included many lots of large round bales. Prices ranged from $52.50 to $115, depending on the type of hay, quality and weight.
One load of large round bales was already loaded on a truck trailer, ready for delivery. These sellers “have always been fair and honest with their bales,” the auctioneer said. The load sold for $120 per bale.
A few small square bales of rye straw were sold for $2.80 to $3.10 per bale.
For 13 years, auctioneer Lyle Bostrom has been helping hay sellers and buyers connect at his Isanti farm. His style is friendly and efficient. He takes turns at the microphone with son Nathan Bostrom and nephew Cullen Bartz. The portable speaker is moved with the crowd, from one hay lot to the next.
The auctioneers use an easy-to-understand chant with comments:
“Good stout bales; some good leaves in there.”
“This might have had a little rain on it, but the boys put it up dry.”
“All upland soft grass.”
“You want color? Here it is!”
“Some spots, calling it to your attention.”
And when the bidding is close, “There are no friends at an auction!”
The hay is sold in small lots for easy transport. “Ninety percent of the people who come have a pick-up. You can put 40 bales on a pick-up,” Lyle Bostrom explained.
He often offers to split a lot, in case a buyer needs just one or two bales for a rabbit hutch or to feed deer.
“They don’t want to hassle a farmer to get two bales,” he said. “They want to put it in their trunk and go home.”
At the end of the auction, buyers line up at two windows to pay for their purchases.
“The biggest thing we want is for people to drive out happy,” Bostrom said.
Bostrom’s Hay Auction is held two Saturdays per month in the winter. Saturday was the last hay auction this winter.
Lyle Bostrom also sells cattle, auctions cattle at live markets in Rock Creek and Albany, and handles machinery sales. His first auction was 28 years ago.
Dan Taylor of Forest Lake, who sells mostly within a 20-mile radius, has customers in Forest Lake, Hugo, Scandia and Stillwater. He also shipped some hay to Madison.
Taylor said there was no third cutting of hay last year on his land, and he got about two-thirds the normal yield on his second cutting. Normally he cuts hay in June, then again every 35 or 40 days.
Haying means waiting for the right weather window, he explained. The process takes four days: cut, wait one or two days for it to dry, bale and pick it up the same day, and get it under a roof.
Taylor caters to the horse market, where standards are high.
“When you think the hay looks ready, you usually have to wait another four hours,” he said. Horse hay typically has to be 10 to 15 percent moisture, he said, but it looks ready when the moisture level is 16 or 17 percent. “Then you wait.” If the hay is rained on, Taylor said, he sells it to a mulch market or cattle market.
Taylor said he is still selling but is out of high-quality hay. Prices have doubled since last fall, he said, and are the highest he’s ever seen.
Cardinal Brothers in Hugo normally gets four cuttings. Last summer there were only three.
“We’re short, just like everybody else,” Jim Cardinal said. “It’s been a stressful year.” The last rain that fell in 2012 was the first week of August, he said, and it was only a half inch.
Cardinal Brothers will offer hay only to their regular customers, most of whom are horse owners. The quality available, Cardinal said, ranges “from cow to top-notch.”
Communication with customers is key, he said.
“If I’m gonna be short, I tell them in advance.” He advises his customers not to be wasteful with hay and not to give it to the neighbors. “There’s only so much,” he said.
Arden Johnson, who raises Holsteins in Scandia, grows all his own hay. He did get a third cutting of hay last summer, but not a fourth.
Part of the problem, he said, is that the drought started in the fall of 2011. Because the spring of 2012 started out dry, he got only 60 percent of the normal yield from his first cutting.
Because of that, and the missed fourth cutting, “I’m squeezing by with just barely enough,” Johnson said.
At Woodloch Stable in Hugo, Bill Ramberg’s answer to the hay shortage is to “scratch, scrounge and, unfortunately, feed a little lesser quality than in the past.”
Ramberg said he raises his own hay, renting land in Hugo, Lino Lakes and Scandia. Some of the fields have heavy clay soil and some are sand. The sandy fields dried out early last summer, and he never got a second hay cutting from those.
He has enough hay to get through the winter, he said, but less than usual.
Ramberg said it’s not just the drought: The demand for corn in the past few years is also to blame for the hay shortage, as more farmers plow up hay fields to plant corn.
Dave Dobbelmann of BuckMann Farm in Forest Lake told of scrambling to find a new hay supplier.
“We’ve had two suppliers since 2008,” he said. “One ran out of hay to sell, had to feed their dairy cattle.” Dobbelmann had been hauling the hay from Spring Valley, Wis., 75 miles each way, because he got good hay at a good price. That farmer gave plenty of notice of the shortage, and BuckMann Farm was able to find a different source.
But another hay seller who said he would have hay for them “got greedy and sold all his hay at a premium,” he said. With no large storage facility on site, Dobbelmann and his partner Tara Buckbee prefer to buy hay that has been stored indoors. This year they had to change their procedure. After finding yet another supplier, they bought 100 round bales and a huge tarp.
“I’ll never go back to the greedy one,” he said.
Neil Henning, of Neil Henning Quarter Horses in Hugo, said his solution to the hay shortage is “just spending more money.” Henning said he’s been buying hay from the same sellers for about 15 years, and he’s still getting hay from them, but this year he had to buy from a few other sources. “The price is about doubled from other years,” he said.
At Lakeview Farm of Hugo, Marla Anderson was blunt.
“It’s making all of us go broke,” she said. “There’s no other way to go around it.”
Anderson said the quality of available hay is poor, and she also experienced difficulties with her usual supplier. The hay farmer she has bought from since 2002, she said, called just two weeks before time to put hay in the barn and said he had none to sell.
“I can’t blame him; he wants to make his dollar,” she said, “but he could have told me sooner.”
Anderson said when you charge people to take care of their horses, you want to make sure the horses eat well. If she could not find the hay she needed to feed them, Anderson said, she would use alfalfa pellets and feed each horse individually.
“All my boarders are understanding; most have been here for years,” she said.
Julie Penshorn, owner of Sunborn Stables in Chisago City, said she raised her rates a bit to cover the increased price of hay.
“Hoping the grass is decent this year,” she wrote in an email.