WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Indiana's hay crop is struggling to weather the drought, leaving livestock producers to search for alternative feedstuffs for their herds and flocks.
The state's alfalfa crop, while high in quality, is low in quantity after a spring freeze reduced the first cutting and drought reduced subsequent cuttings. Drought also has wreaked havoc on other grass hay sources and pastures.
"This definitely is a problematic year and scenario," said Keith Johnson, Purdue University Extension forage specialist. "The hay yield certainly is depressed. I wouldn't be surprised if the yields were off by 50 percent for some producers."
In a more normal year, and with proper management, Indiana alfalfa producers could have as many as five cuttings. This year's crop likely will only be harvested three times in many regions of the state.
Alfalfa quality hasn't suffered like the quantity has.
"The quality of the crop is probably the silver lining," Johnson said. "Alfalfa is a drought-tolerant plant, so what happens in a dry weather scenario is that you have more leaf as compared to stem than you would in a more normal year. Leaves are what have the quality."
That hasn't been the case for other hay sources, however.
In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released Conservation Reserve Program land for haying and grazing in many Indiana counties, but drought has ransacked vegetation on those acres, as well.
"The quality of CRP hay is certainly not for lactating dairy cows but, rather, for dry beef cows or dry ewes that have weaned offspring and have lesser quality needs," Johnson said. "The quality of that hay is not going to be exceptional."
The short hay crop and high demand mean livestock producers already are paying almost twice what they might in a normal year. Johnson said he has seen high-quality hay sell for as much as $300 per ton at northern Indiana hay auctions. In years with normal hay yields, the crop sells for around $150-$175 per ton.
Those prices are a strain on the already-tight budgets of livestock producers - some of whom already are reducing their herds.
Johnson emphasized those producers who want to maintain herds need to plan ahead for winter feed supplies. Hay isn't likely to be available by the time winter rolls around.
"I think most producers have an idea of the number of bales they will need to feed the number of livestock they have," he said. "What's happened is that hay that was made early in the season, which was supposed to be stored for feeding in late fall into the winter, is now being fed in the middle of summer.
"Producers really need to keep track of where they are with that and not be caught in a short supply when they have no time to react to it."
One management practice Johnson suggested is to limit animals' hay access time to 8-12 hours a day instead of 24. Doing so is more labor-intensive, but reduces hay waste.
"Yes, it's an extra hassle to do that, but in dire times producers have to be willing to take some extra steps if they want to keep as much of the livestock operation intact as possible," he said.
Other options include looking to other feed resources, such as crop residues left over from corn harvest, or even the drought-stressed corn crop that might not have grain potential.
"Once cleared by crop insurance adjusters, corn farmers and livestock producers could potentially make transactions to turn that corn into a silage crop," Johnson said. "An option certainly is to cull the herd, but if we are wise about this, we can look to other resources."