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Hay shortage means high costs for Oklahoma ranchers as winter arrives

Oklahoma State University Agricultural Communications Services

This year’s severe drought conditions caused crops like wheat and corn to wither away and pasture cattle graze to dry up. Ranchers across the state are now looking for ways to feed their cattle through the winter as hay supplies dwindle.

Despite the recent drop in temperatures and several Oklahoma counties already receiving snowfall this month, farmers and ranchers are feeling the effects of drought.

In late fall, livestock producers typically feed their cattle hay they’ve stocked up on throughout the year to keep their cows fed through the winter.

But because of this year’s severe drought conditions, crops like wheat and corn withered away and pastures cattle graze on dried up. The extreme hot and dry conditions caused heat stress on cattle herds and dried out ranchers’ water ponds, a critical drinking spot for cattle.

“Everybody may have had a little bit of hay to harvest, but it was a drastically reduced yield compared to what they’re accustomed to feed back to their cattle in the wintertime,” said Dr. David Lalman, a beef specialist for Oklahoma State University’s Extension.

Even if they did stock up on some hay, some ranchers have been feeding their cattle their winter hay supply since July. Not having enough food for cows forced some ranchers to make tough decisions.

“A lot of ranching operations started to sell some of their cow-calf inventory because they just didn't have any feed for those cattle or standing forage for those cattle,” Lalman said.

Hay costs have jumped this year. Brady Womack, a market news reporter for Oklahoma’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, said factors like the drought, fertilizer costs, transportation costs and labor are all reflected in today’s prices.

Compared to last November, Womack said the cost of a bale of alfalfa hay in Oklahoma has gone up by 55% this year, and the price of a bale of grass hay has gone up by 88%.

“Hay supply keeps getting lower, and we haven’t even hit winter yet,” Womack said. “Which means, demand [for hay] is going to get higher, and so the price with that keeps growing.”

In an effort to meet demand, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a 30-day executive order to temporarily suspend regulations on vehicles transporting hay bales into the state in early October. Stitt’s order extended the width limit of commercial hay loads to make it easier for more loads to come into the state.

As colder weather approaches, Lalman said it’s important ranchers have a winter plan in place such as narrowing their cow herd down to a number they're able to support with the food they have on hand. He also adds that there are various alternative feed options for cattle, but it’s important for ranchers to stay mindful of their feed's nutritional value.

“The consumer wants to know the livestock are happy, healthy and productive,” Lalman said. “Getting through these next few months and making sure that happens is important because it’s going to be a better quality product for the consumer.”

Lalman and OSU Extension shared other factors ranchers should ask when purchasing hay:

  • How much does the hay bale weigh? Request pricing of the hay based on tonnage or weight, not per bale.
  • How much protein does the hay bale have? It’s important to take a forage analysis of the hay before it’s purchased.
  • When was the hay baled? Older hay may have more spoilage. 
  • Where was the hay bale originally located? Hay cannot be moved from fire ant endemic areas without taking steps to ensure there are no fire ants being transported to areas designated free of fire ants.
  • Where has the hay bale been stored? In a barn or outside? On the ground or on pallets?
  • How was the hay bale wrapped? Net-wrapped bales stay together better than those wrapped in twine.

Since low hay yields and high feed prices pushed farmers to sell a large amount of their cattle herd, beef supply for consumers might tighten in the future as well. That means higher meat prices.

“A smaller calf crop means there’ll be fewer animals harvested to produce beef over the next year or two, Lalman said. “So that’s going to lead to higher prices and that’s how the drought, in the long run, is going to impact the consumer.”

Xcaret Nuñez covered agriculture and rural communities for KOSU as a corps member with Report for America from June 2022 to September 2023.
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