SIOUX CITY | Last year, Steve Flewelling and his sons, Brett and Blake, watched helplessly as their hayfields shriveled in a scorching, summerlong drought. This year, they can barely keep up with fields full of green alfalfa and grass hay.
They have adequate rain to thank.
“It’s just 10 times busier than last year,” said Brett Flewelling.
About 2 inches more of rain fell on this year's crop than last year's, according to National Weather Service figures. Rainfall measured at Sioux Gateway Airport from June through August last year totaled 4.65 inches; this year's total for the same period was 6.8 inches, said Brad Adams, a hydrometeorological technician at the Weather Service office in Sioux Falls.
In addition, blistering temperatures of more than 100 degrees on several days took a toll last summer. Temperatures didn't go that high during this season's critical growing months.
As a result, experts say bountiful hay crops and lush pastures mean area livestock owners will not face another crippling hay shortage in 2013. Hay is not expected to be as expensive this winter as it was last year.
The price of alfalfa hay dropped dramatically this summer, outpacing the normal seasonal decline when pastures typically provide adequate forage, said Ken Barnett, a University of Wisconsin Extension educator who tracks hay prices. The monthly mean price of alfalfa hay in the Upper Midwest was $40 less in August than it was in August 2012, he said.
"Once production kicked in in the spring, the price really dropped more than it normally would," said Barnett, of Wausau, Wis. "But we were at a really high price."
With last year's drought-induced shortage, alfalfa hay in Iowa had soared as high as $280 a ton by June of this year, according to University of Wisconsin data. In August, the average price was down to $205 a ton.
In 2011, when perennial hay-producing states such as Texas were ravaged by drought, many Midwest farmers and ranchers sold excess hay to desperate livestock owners in the South. When the drought moved to the Northern Plains the next year, withered crops and depleted reserves combined for a crippling shortage of hay.
Adding to the calamity, farmers nationwide have been harvesting less hay as more fields are planted with corn.
"What we were seeing was the effects of reduced acreage and reduced production, especially from Texas," said Barnett.
The shortage sent feedlot operators scrambling for forage. Many ranchers had to sell cows because they didn't have enough grass or hay to feed them, said Melody Benjamin, vice president of member services for Nebraska Cattlemen, which represents the state's beef industry.
“Last year you just couldn’t find (hay),” Benjamin said. “It didn’t matter what the price was. You just couldn’t find it.”
This year, it's a completely different story
In the fields where the Flewellings got two cuttings of hay and were mostly done harvesting by July in 2012, they're now trying to get a fourth cutting dried, harvested and safely stored away.
Area hay won't be of the best quality -- moisture from heavy dews, humidity and rain affects the nutritional value -- but it will be plentiful, said Brent Flewelling.
"The quantity is there," he said. "The quality is poor because of the summer we've had, but there won't be any problems with feed being available."
As of last week, the Nebraska Cattlemen's Benjamin said producers she'd spoken with hadn't even started looking for hay. They know finding it won't be an issue, she said.
"There’s just no stress to get hay put together and purchased at this time," Benjamin said. "It’s a big difference from last year."