All hay stored on U.S. farms on Dec. 1 totaled 76.5 million tons, according to a USDA Crop Production report issued last Friday. That’s down 16 percent compared to the year-earlier figure and the lowest Dec. 1 stocks level since 1957. Also in the report, USDA noted that hay disappearance from May 1 to Dec. 1, 2012, totaled 64.7 million tons compared to 62.7 million tons for the same period in 2011.
In a Crop Production 2012 Summary report also released Friday, USDA estimated U.S. production of all dry hay in 2012 at 120 million tons, down 2 percent from the Oct. 1 forecast and down 9 percent from the 2011 total. It’s the lowest U.S. production level since 1964.
For alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures, the Ag department estimated total 2012 production at 52 million tons. That’s down 6 percent from the Oct. 1 forecast and down 20 percent from the year-earlier figure. Production has not been this low since 1953. Due in large part to dry weather that resulted in poor yields in the central and northern Great Plains, Midwest and Northern Tier, production decreased by 21 percent or more in 15 of the 42.
What do you see when you look at a bale? Certainly, many would say it is a source of feed for our livestock. Others see a commodity that is sold to their customers. These are the most important aspects of any forage. But, there is one other intrinsic value worth noting. It’s nutrient content. In a sense, it is a bale of fertilizer.
On most farms, fertilizer accounts for the single largest input into any hay or forage crop. It is a cost of doing business. Yes, fertilizer prices remain at very high levels. Unfortunately, there are no substitutes for providing adequate nutrients. There are no shortcuts. One can try, but it is likely that cutting back on fertilizer will cost more over the long run because of decreased yields and poor stand longevity.
When fertilizer prices increased sharply in 2007-2009, many forage producers substantially cut phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) fertilization rates or left them out all together. By the end of 2009, perennial forage stands began to show the effect. Reports of poor yields and severe stand thinning became rampant. Fertilizer is still a bargain when compared to dragging down yield and the cost of renovating perennial forage stands.
The reason so much fertilizer is necessary is that hay and silage removes large quantities from the soil with each ton that is removed. With the run-up in fertilizer prices in the past 10 years, it is important to recognize how the fertilizer value of conserved forage has increased.
Certainly, the total value of the forage is mainly tied to its nutrient value (e.g., digestible energy, protein, etc.). Nonetheless, one should always understand that the minerals contained in that forage have value, too. Even forage (e.g., wheat straw) that has little or no nutritive value should never be sold or valued at less than its fertilizer value.
(Source Dr. Dennis Hancock, Forage Extension Specialist, University of Georgia)