The latest week, September 24, 2018, showed another decline in the amount of pasture and range in poor to very poor conditions in USDA’s crop progress report. About 24% of the U.S. pastures and rangeland fit the poor to very poor description, down from the peak earlier this year of 30%. Almost all the regions the Livestock Marketing Information Center tracks (Cornbelt, Southern Plains, Western, Great Plains, Southeast, and Northeast) have shown improvement to pasture conditions in the last four weeks. One of the more dramatic changes has been the Southern Plains, which this week fell to under 20% in poor and very poor conditions, compared to a high of 42% earlier this year.
The exception to improving pastures has been the Western region, which has seen little relief. Pastures in those states have continued to see deterioration, and for the latest week, poor and very poor conditions increased to 56%. Correspondingly, the drought monitor shows concentrated severe and exceptional drought over the Four Corners region.
Small grain pastures (e.g., winter wheat) opportunities are setting-up to have a good year. In the Southern Plains, which had a worrisome summer regarding forage production, has turned around with winter wheat planting ahead of a year ago. Early planting and quick germination will grant cattle earlier access to those fields and allow for longer grazing without sacrificing harvesting that wheat for grain. Time will tell how the forage potential of those pastures will be, but heading into the fall availability looks to be well above normal.
Nationally, hay prices remain above a year ago, and national hay stocks are very tight. Additionally, quality of hay is an issue in many areas of the U.S., due to the variable weather that occurred during the summer growing season. If winter pasture forage deteriorates, expect to pay a hefty premium for quality forage.