Ranchers balance hay use with bottom line

Craig Reed/For the Capital Press Brian Ferguson kneels as he and his father, Gordon, talk about the characteristics of a growing calf on their ranch east of Roseburg, Ore. The father and son run close to 400 cows on the hilly pastures of their ranch. Instead of buying record priced high-protein hay from Eastern Oregon, the Fergusons plan to feed their livestock Western Oregon grass and grass-clover hay through the winter.

Cheaper alternatives sought as prices rise across Western states

By CRAIG REED

For the Capital Press

ROSEBURG, Ore. -- Here's how Western Oregon rancher Gordon Ferguson is dealing with the high price of hay: He's not buying any.

"The price is up so I just haven't bought any," said the veteran rancher who runs a cow-calf operation east of Roseburg, Ore. "The cows can get by on a little less quality hay."

Ferguson plans to feed his livestock grass hay from the west side of the state. Grass hay has much less protein than alfalfa or alfalfa mix hay.

That is one option ranchers have in dealing with the record prices of alfalfa and alfalfa mix hay grown in Central and Eastern Oregon.

Dan Hatfield, another Douglas County rancher, said he bought a semitruck load of eastside alfalfa at $240 a ton in July for his bulls. He said that's $80 to $100 a ton more than he paid for a load a year ago. He doubts he'll buy more because of the price, opting to feed his mother cows westside grass hay.

Western Oregon grass hay is selling for $80 to $120 a ton depending on quality and freight expense. That can range up to $40 a ton more than a year ago.

Kurt Spencer, who runs feeder cattle on several properties in several Western states, said he anticipated the uptick in hay prices and chose to lease more land. He moved his cattle to that ground for grazing, freeing up more land for grass and clover hay production.

"We chose to find pasture rather than buying hay," Spencer said. "But the hay price is not really a big issue for us, it's more an issue for those cattlemen in drought areas like Texas, where nothing is growing.

"If we buy expensive hay, it's because we've got a good offer for our feeder calves," he added. "If we buy calves at a reasonable price level and add the cost of hay and other costs and know what we're going to get for them eight or nine months down the road, I'm OK. You can't panic over the hay price. You just figure it in there."

Spencer said cattlemen are always looking at alternatives for less expensive rations for their livestock. Putting them on pasture or offering them a byproduct feed is always considered.

Kris Harrold, a hay broker in Cottage Grove, Ore., said that her customers have her looking for cheaper hay options -- grain hay instead of alfalfa.

"It's still going to be $6,000 to $7,000 for a truckload, roughly 32 to 34 tons, compared to $5,000 to $6,000 a year ago," she said. "At this point, the export market is driving the price and the supply is disappearing. Some ranchers are trying to graze their animals more."

Bill Hoyt, a rancher in the Cottage Grove area and the president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said he's heard of some frustration from cattlemen concerning the hay price.

"They're just looking to get by," he said. "The cattle aren't going to starve (without higher protein hay), but they might not do as well going through the winter and into spring."

Hoyt said it's a gamble to decide not to buy hay and hope for a mild winter and early spring grass for grazing because if winter is harsh, hay will be needed, the supply will be low and the price for what's available will be even higher.

"Hopefully cows have had a pretty good fall, the weather has been reasonable, the grass is growing well now and we've managed our pastures well enough so there can be more grazing and less feeding of hay," Hoyt said.

Hoyt said he did buy a semi-truck load of high quality east side alfalfa for his ewes when they are in the barn lambing this winter. He said he paid a little over $8,000 for the load.

"You have to feed them high quality when they're in the barn," he said. "The cows are out on their own and have their calves outside. We're looking to pay less for cow hay. We might even buy a lick tub, a molasses tub."

The ranchers are all hoping beef prices stay up so there's compensation for the increased prices for hay and other production costs. But the price for Ferguson and Hatfield's calves that are being born now won't be known until it gets closer to next summer and shipping time.

"Hopefully the prices stay up there -- they've got to, I guess, to cover expenses," said Ferguson.

"I hope the beef price stays up to compensate for the increase in costs -- all expenses, not just hay," said Hatfield. "I like the beef price, but it'll have to stay where it is today in order to pay our bills and us make a little."

Spencer remains optimistic about the industry, despite hay prices.

"The cattle business is good, stay with it," he said. "We're in the right industry for a change."

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