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Hay Supplies Remain Tight For Texas Cattle Producers

Hay production was better during the 2023 hay season, but back-to-back years of impacts from drought have left Texas hay supplies tight as cattle producers feed herds through winter. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Texas Crop and Weather Report – January 30, 2024

Hay supplies may be better than last year. Still, they remain highly tight as costs for winter feeding continue to mount for Texas ranchers, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Jason Cleere, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension statewide beef cattle specialist and professor in the Texas A&M Department of Animal Science, Bryan-College Station, said hay supplies have improved, but stocks are still below pre-drought averages. Back-to-back years have led to deeper culling and complex decision-making about their herds for some producers, even as cow/calf prices remain historically strong.

Cleere said spotty rains delivered moisture to some parts of the state early and other areas late in the hay season last year. That provided decent early or late-season cuttings for those areas, but Texas held back forage production by hot, dry conditions overall.

“Texas had two rough summers, and producers can absorb a miss one year with reserves from the previous haying season, but two years in a row becomes more challenging,” he said. “We haven’t stopped feeding hay since mid-July on our farm, which is a challenge for producers who aren’t producing their hay, given bale prices.”

Tight hay supplies driving prices higher.

David Anderson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension economist and professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Bryan-College Station, said tight supplies and higher demand drive prices upward. Anderson said December 1 hay stocks were the third lowest on record behind 2022 and 2012, respectively.

He said that Texas hay yields averaged 1.87 tons per acre in 2023 compared to 1.56 tons per acre in 2022, but tonnage was still below historical averages. Producers have yielded 1.95 tons per acre on average since 2012.

The national price for round bales is $102, but Cleere said grass hay bales in Texas have been selling for $100-$140, or $200-$280 per ton based on quality.

Some ranchers are shipping in hay and alfalfa from out of state due to low availability locally, Cleere said. Anderson said Oklahoma hay stocks were up 97% compared to last year, while New Mexico, which produces mostly alfalfa, was up 25% and Kansas was down 12%.

“Prices are not as high as a year ago, but they are indicative of the tighter supplies and higher input costs,” Anderson said. “There are fewer cows to feed, but the costs to keep herds fed through winter after poor hay and grazing production has translated into tough decisions for some producers.”

Conditions for grazing, hay season improving

Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension forage specialist and professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Overton, said recent rainfall could alleviate some producer concerns. Storm systems that delivered moisture to much of the state could improve conditions in established cool-season forages, like winter wheat or annual ryegrass. The rain should also improve conditions as warm-season perennial grasses begin breaking dormancy this spring.

Cool-season forage conditions for some producers, especially in areas with more moisture like East Texas, were suitable for grazing, and the rain should help improve production, she said. However, grazing availability is a mixed bag around the state, even in East Texas, where many producers may have yet to seed ryegrass due to dry conditions in September and October.

In other parts of the state, like the Panhandle and South Plains, sporadic soil moisture led to decent winter wheat establishment but little production for some and failure for others. Some dry-sown fields had yet to emerge, and AgriLife Extension experts said the recent moisture may be too late to help grazing.

“The producers who planted in mid-October are having success, but I think fewer people planted this year because of drought and doubts about rainfall,” Corriher-Olson said. “But now we’re in February, and I’ve gotten calls from people wanting to plant because they are out of hay and don’t have anything to graze. The moisture will help what is up, but unfortunately, it’s too late to plant.”

The key now, she said, is to focus on optimizing hay output in 2024. Unfortunately, many forage producers have reduced or cut fertilizer inputs over the previous two seasons because of high prices in 2021 and drought in 2022.

The lack of fertility and overgrazing could lead to compounding problems this season, she said. Lack of fertility, especially potassium, has led to unhealthy and thinning stands in Bermuda grass fields, while overgrazing will likely result in a “bumper crop” of annual weeds.

Producers should start with a soil sample now that there is moisture to make sampling easier, she said. Analysis is the only way to know the state of soil and its ability to support warm-season perennial grass production.

She said that Planning would also give producers time to shop around for contract fertilizer options to meet the soil fertility requirements recommended based on the soil analysis. Producers should also shop for other inputs, including herbicides, based on pests they’ve dealt with in past seasons.

“Low fertility, unhealthy or overgrazed stands will not recover as quickly without reducing competition with weeds and feeding the grass what it needs to grow,” she said. “We will need more rain during the growing season, but this moisture should bring some optimism.”

The outlook remains positive for cattle producers.

Cleere said the future looks bright for producers who can hold and maintain good body conditions on quality cows and heifers. But balancing feeding costs with potential gains and realized sale prices for calves will be critical for short- and long-term profitability.

He recommends continuing assessment of hay rations, body conditions, and potential culls of older or troublesome cows and considering earlier weaning of calves to reduce pressure on cows.

Producers should also consider moving cattle to smaller holding locations for winter feeding to help other grazing pastures recover quicker, he said.

“In 2011, grain prices were more economical, and that helped stretch hay supplies during that drought, but both are so expensive now that it makes producers walk a fine line,” he said. “But we need to stay on top of forage management and pasture recovery because ryegrasses and legumes can take off and change things dramatically with moisture.”

The district saw substantial rainfall and warm temperatures over the past week. While it was not quite enough to bust the drought conditions, it was certainly enough to add to the stock tank and topsoil moisture levels. The low temperatures received earlier knocked back almost all winter grazing and producers delayed field preparations due to excess moisture. Oats and wheat were still showing symptoms of frost damage on their leaves; however, some grain appeared to be in good condition with no substantial damage from the cold. Full feeding of hay and supplements continued for all livestock. Many spring-calving herds had calves hitting the ground. Hessian fly larvae continued to be identified in fields and could be a concern again this year.

ROLLING PLAINS

The district experienced widespread rain last week, with some areas receiving half an inch to 1.5 inches of moisture. As did soil profiles, livestock tanks and drinking sources benefited greatly from this. Winter wheat was continuing to look promising for a good harvest. Cattle were also looking well, and with the added rainfall, winter grasses should improve grazing opportunities for livestock on pasture. Most producers continued feeding hay and supplements. Several counties were starting to report an increase in feral hog activity.

COASTAL BEND

Recent heavy rains brought relief, with countywide totals ranging from 3-12 inches, filling stock ponds and improving winter pasture conditions. Field conditions were wet but beneficial, with the rains meeting both subsoil and topsoil moisture needs for the upcoming planting season. Weather delayed spring wheat planting; some prevented planting was anticipated due to ongoing wet soil conditions. Most producers had finished fertilizing, and they expected to plant the first fields of corn soon. They reported wheat fields to be in excellent shape. Winter pasture growth slowed due to cool, wet weather, but producers expected warmer days to promote more growth. Due to flooding, they relocated cattle to higher pastures, and supplemental feeding continued due to limited pasture growth. Overall, the market holds firm despite the halting of farm operations due to the heavy rains.

EAST

Heavy rains hit the district, with some areas receiving as much as 13 inches. Many counties reported standing water in pastures and fields. The excess water hindered producers’ ability to get into pastures. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to underzible. Subsoil conditions were surplus to adequate. Topsoil conditions were surplus. Rains raised ponds and creeks that were once low to full or overflowing. Livestock were in fair to good condition, with supplementation taking place. Cattle markets in some areas were closed due to weather conditions.

SOUTH PLAINS

The area picked up an excellent slow-soaking rain the past week. Cloudy and cool weather kept producers out of the field. They reported wheat in various conditions. Late-planted wheat struggled with the cool days, while they said earlier-planted wheat was looking pretty good with the conditions given. Cattle were in good condition, and supplemental feeding was taking place.

PANHANDLE

The region remained extremely dry. The weather was cold, cloudy, and foggy, with some drizzle but no significant accumulation. Producers moved stocker cattle because of limited pasture. Supplemental feeding continued for cattle. Overall, they said soil conditions were from adequate to very short. They reported pasture and rangelands as fair to unacceptable, while winter wheat was the same.

NORTH

Producers said topsoil and subsoil were adequate to surplus for most counties within the district. Pastures and rangeland were fair to unacceptable in most counties. Temperatures remained below freezing throughout the district. Some counties received significant rainfall over the past week, leaving areas flooded and muddy. Winter wheat and other cool-season crops were in various conditions. Hay consumption increased significantly in some places, while most areas were short due to low production over the summer. Livestock conditions were fair to good, with producers continuing supplemental feeding. They found no disease or insect outbreaks in the district.

FAR WEST

The temperatures have been in the mid-60s during the day and in the mid to lower-30s overnight. The region received very little rain in the middle of last week. There was very dense fog due to high humidity every morning. Fieldwork resumed around the area, with producers starting to lay off rows to prepare for this spring and capture any rain that falls. Wheat was struggling in most areas due to the lack of moisture. A few fields planted early could take advantage of some moisture and have more tillers and a more extensive root system. The pecan harvest was almost complete. Pasture and topsoil moisture remained short. Producers were still struggling with the lack of rain; keeping livestock fed and watered was getting expensive. Livestock were in fair condition; many producers sent their stock to the sale.

WEST CENTRAL

Moist conditions remained across the district, with various amounts of rainfall accompanied by temperatures in the upper 60s. Soil moisture remained good. With the cooler temperatures, oats were not looking good, but wheat was in fair to good condition. They still needed rain to revive the crop fully. Pastures and rangelands were greening up with the recent rain. Tanks and lake water levels were still in need of rain to rise. Producers continued supplemental feeding of their cattle herds. Cattle prices remain steady at local sale barns.

SOUTHEAST

Rain fell across the district, ranging from 7-10 inches. Subsoil moisture was almost saturated, and topsoil was seeing runoff. Pasture conditions remained good for producers who planted winter pasture even though some colder temperatures caused rye, wheat, and oats to struggle. Numerous bodies of water were out of their banks. Cattle prices were above average and showed no sign of lowering.

SOUTHWEST

Widespread rainfall ranging from 3-6 inches fell across the region, improving moisture conditions. Producers anticipated conditions would improve with the addition of subsoil and topsoil moisture. However, wet conditions will hinder preparations for planting corn and milo. The need for more rain persists, as we are still behind, and creeks and rivers are not flowing. Winter wheat under pivots was thriving, along with grazing oat fields. Livestock markets remained firm while producers maintained their herd’s condition by continuing supplemental feeding and hay.

SOUTH

Scattered rain fell across the district, with some areas benefitting more. Temperatures reached into the high 70s. Some areas experienced high winds and small hail, but the damage was minor. Wheat, oats, and winter weeds responded rapidly to the moisture and warm temperatures, but most forages were still in fair to poor condition due to the January freeze. Beef markets continued to receive below-average volumes due to the wet conditions, but they expected volumes to increase. Prices remained firm and steady for all classes of beef cattle. Hay supplies were low, and cattle and wildlife producers continued supplemental feeding.