The drought, of course, was to blame, but the drought has eased. As of the last week in May, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed less than 14 percent of the state as being in an extreme or exceptional drought. According to recent crop reports, some producers have already cut and baled more hay this year than they did all of last year.
Ronnie Leps, a former agriculture Extension agent and a forage consultant, said he expects hay supplies to be better this year than last year, but he doesn't expect that to necessarily translate into more money for people who choose to grow and sell hay this year.
"The thing is -- if you have hay, everybody has hay," he said. "And with there being so many fewer cows, who needs hay if there's no cattle to eat it? There is the horse market, but they usually want to buy a 30-day supply at a time. It seems like an easy market, but it really isn't."
Leps, based in Williamson County, said producers in that area got one good cutting early in the year but April turned out to be unseasonably hot and dry at a time when they would normally be making a second cutting. Instead of the usual four cuttings, he said a lot of Central Texas producers will be lucky to get two. He said he's not completely sold on hay as a commodity.
"Hay is difficult to grow and it's expensive if you do it right," he said. "You have to fertilize it after you cut it, and you have land costs, equipment costs -- it's a significant figure to get a get a good crop. It's a tough commodity to sell every year."
Vanessa Corriher, a forage specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension, said she believes that most producers who are growing hay this year are doing so for their own use or possibly to sell in the future. Few, she said, are approaching it as a money-making opportunity.
"We've seen a lot rye grass production this year, and there have been some purchases of it, but I think most people are rebuilding their own stocks," she said. "We've seen over the last couple of years that you always need to plan for a worst case scenario. We might get some rain this summer, but it's best to plan as if you won't."
At conference and seminars this spring, Corriher has beat the drum for a fertility management program that begins with a soil test to determine how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is already in the soil. She recommends the same thing for native as well as improved grasses. "Growing natives is not an escape from best management practices," she said.
The USDA hay report for the last week of May showed small bales of alfalfa hay selling for $8 per bale in North, Central and East Texas. Coastal Bermuda was selling for six to $10 per bale. "Good outlook for crop for the new season with hay growers receiving rain that was hard to come by last year," the report noted.
"Up to now, a lot of the pastures have recovered somewhat," Leps said. "There's still a lot of pastures with bare ground, but we're going to need a little bit of rainfall if they're going to continue to recover. If we do get some rain, we might have hay coming out of ears this year. Next year -- who knows?"
The Texas Department of Agriculture has a Hay and Grazing Hot Line set up for buyers and sellers looking for hay or grazing. The number is 1 (877) 429-1998. The website is www.TexasAgricultue.gov/hayhotline.