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Hay shortage

The lack of a hay supply is leading to big headaches for farmers across southwest North Dakota.

After several wet growing seasons, Lane Hall, North Dakota State University's extension county agent for Slope County, said the dryness is taking its toll on hay supplies.

Hall said the hay shortage, especially in Slope County, is now severe.

He said that has resulted in farmers nationwide competing to get their hands on quality hay for their livestock.

"I'd say there are producers that did hay about a quarter of last year, and there are some who never even turned the wheel," Hall said. "But I think the eastern side of the county is better off, in terms of their hay supply."

Kurt Froelich, North Dakota State University extension agent for Stark/Billings county, said the hay shortage comes on the heels of several years of a plentiful hay crop.

"Our hay crop this year is probably one-fourth to one-third of what we had been getting in the last few years," he said. "If we're talking just this year's hay crop, if it's all producers have, they may be in tough shape. If they have some carry-over from past years, I think producers will be OK."

The unknown variable is what winter has in store for the state this year, Froelich said.

"If farmers could know what the winter will be like and how much they will have to feed their animals, that would surely ease the minds of producers."

South Heart farmer Jerry Wagner is one of the lucky ones who has a year supply of hay.

"If there's a shortage and you've got cattle, there are only one of two things that you can do: find hay to buy, or sell your cattle," he said. "There is no guarantee that there won't be a drought next year, and if I had to buy hay now, I think I would sell the cows."

Wagner recognizes that selling herds farmers spent a lifetime building isn't an easy decision.

But he said for some producers struggling to find hay, it is the most economical choice.

There is hay going for $120 a ton Wagner said. "Now, you can find hay for $60 to $80 a ton, but it's less quality and not as good of feed for cattle. There's no doubt that some people will be in trouble, and if there is no hay next year, it will really be a disaster."

Froelich said producers need to have quality feed to get through the winter when the ground is snow-covered and grazing outdoors is next to impossible.

He said for some that will mean turning to different types of forage, accustomed to fit the needs of their animals.

Producers have had to turn to other options in past hay shortages like in 2008.

Froelich said 2008 was probably the worst hay shortage farmers have experienced in recent history before this year's drought.

"That was a bad year, and we had to bring a lot of hay into the area, quite a bit of it from South Dakota," Froelich said. "But everybody is in the same boat this year again, although areas west and south of Stark County are probably worst, and areas east of here are probably a little better than we are."

And it is hard to predict what the shortage will mean over time, Froelich said.

"Financially, the impact of the hay shortage will depend on if producers have to buy feed, at what cost they have to purchase it at," he said. "What the future holds will all depend on how much moisture we get over time."

Hall said he expects some producers to begin selling cattle.

"Some producers are likely to get rid of their cows earlier than fall, especially because the grass has already run out in some spots around the county," he said. "Farmers may have to start feeding earlier, and I see herds being cut down and not being rebuilt for the next 18 months possibly."