You know that adage make hay while the sun shines? It’s a true story.
And it’s converse is true as well — if it’s raining, it’s no time to make hay.
That has put farmers, livestock producers and horse owners in a tough spot this year as nearly constant rain has made it impossible to harvest hay.
At a time when farmers would typically be harvesting their second hay crop of the year, hay producers were rushing into the fields as several dry days in a row — the first dry period of the season — allowed them to get in their first crop of the year.
The situation is driving up prices and raising fears there will be a shortage of feed this winter.
“I’ve been doing this all my life,” said Paris farmer Kevin Muhlenbeck. “This is the worst year we’ve ever had.”
The unusually wet spring and early summer were difficult for Kenosha County farmers, delaying planting and, in some cases, making it impossible to plant grain crops like corn and soybeans before it was too late in the planting season. An unusual number of fields have been left fallow.
But it has also been a disaster for hay production.
Hay is essentially dried grasses or alfalfa or a mix of the two, made for feed for grazing animals like horses and cattle. For horses especially, quality hay is critical, with forage making up most of the animals’ diet.
Dr. Randy Borri, a large animal veterinarian with Bristol Veterinary Service, said a typical horse needs to eat 15 to 20 pounds of hay each day. Depending on the size of the bales, that means each horse in a barn might eat half a bale of hay every day.
Getting good hay
“You’ve got to have three or four days of good, dry weather to get good hay,” Muhlenbeck said.
To make hay, farmers cut the grass or alfalfa in the field, let it lay flat to dry, then rake it into windrows to dry again. After it is sufficiently dry, the hay can be baled. Muhlenbeck said if hay isn’t dried properly it will begin to mold when baled, and hay with mold is unsafe for horses. If it is very wet, the compressed bales of hay can even begin to heat up as they decompose, with improperly cured hay sometimes causing barn fires.
Unlike grain crops like corn and soybeans that are sold in international markets, hay usually is used close to home. Farmers produce hay for their own animals and for neighbors. Larger producers like Muhlenbach sell the hay they produce to horse farms.
Leigh Presley, University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture educator for Kenosha and Racine counties, said that according to federal data there are 122 horse farms in Kenosha County and about 1,800 horses. Those farms range from backyard owners with two or three horses to multi-million dollar farms.
Borri, who travels from farm to farm visiting clients in his practice, said horse farm owners had been getting desperate for hay in recent weeks.
“Two or three weeks ago the majority of farms were asking me ‘where can we get hay, where can we get hay.’ Everyone was getting nervous,” Borri said. “There were some big stables that only had 30 or 40 bales left.”
Drier this week
With dry weather this week, hay producers — from families baling five acres for their own livestock to farmers producing thousands of bales for sale — were working nonstop to get hay off fields.
On social media, horse owners were celebrating. Farm owners posted photos and video of hay wagons pulling into barns.
Presley said that problems producing forage are also a serious problem for dairy farmers, adding to an already terrible year in which low milk prices are driving a record number of dairy farmers to sell herds and leave the business.
She said a one-year rule change is allowing farmers to plant forage crops on fields for fall harvest without losing crop insurance. That may be some help for dairy and cattle farmers, she said, but not the equine industry because the feed types horses can digest is more limited.
“With the horse community, that flexibility to use other forage is not there,” she said.
Costs heading up
Presley said horse owners and livestock owners who have to purchase hay are likely to find higher prices and lower quality hay available. Hay that typically sells for $4.50 to $5 a bale is now selling for $8 to $10 according to local advertisements.
She said farms may have to look to other states to ship in hay, although she said the conditions hitting southeast Wisconsin are also a problem elsewhere in the Midwest.
Presley said the dry, hot weather this week is giving farmers and farm owners some hope, and Borri said the recent harvest is taking the immediate pressure off many farms. “But I think we’re going to have an issue this fall and winter,” he said.
According to Presley, the best hope for farms is that there is warm weather into the fall to allow for additional hay harvests.
“Everyone is hoping for a long, dry fall — that’s one of the remaining hopes,” she said.