Comanche County, Okla., is home to a lot of animals constantly needing hay as an important part of their diets. Unfortunately, since 2011, when the current drought started, hay supplies have been limited.
And available hay has been very costly for at least two reasons: 1) There just hasn't been enough of it to go around. And 2) what hay has been available has been hauled in from other states with high transportation costs adding to the animal owners' bills.
Starting at the top of the quality ladder, dairy cattle and horses demand the best quality hay available. Dairy cattle need high quality hay because of the intensive effort in manufacturing milk, and horses need it because they are a one-stomached animal, unlike a cow.
Performance horses such as those in race training, rodeo and horse show events need the best quality hay available.
Beef cattle utilizing pasture grasses are able to utilize lower quality hay, like baled wheat.
About the only hay in the Comanche County area that’s of a sufficient supply for the coming winter is wheat hay, baled by farmers after their wheat crop was killed this spring by late spring frosts.
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Joe McMahan, Lawton, has been in the hay business for a long time. He produces, bales and sells alfalfa and grass hay. He also hauls hay in from other areas in Oklahoma and surrounding states to provide cattlemen, horsemen and dairy farmers with different hay products year-round.
"There isn't much alfalfa hay being produced in southwest Oklahoma this year, just like the last two years," he said. "Alfalfa needs plenty of soil moisture to grow and mature and there just isn't enough to allow that to happen now.
"Some grass hay from bermuda to native prairie hay has been baled around here, but not too much," he said."Again, if there was a little rainfall on a hayfield, there might have been enough to bale one cutting. The recent rain gave us 4 inches on three quarter sections of bluestem grass where we had intended to bale it soon. But now we will let it grow some more and plan to bale it after the first of August."
For now, McMahan is hauling in good alfalfa and bermuda hay in large square bales from fields 100 miles north of Lawton. Most of the alfalfa is traveling on south to dairy farmers in north Texas, he said.
Top quality alfalfa in large, square bales measuring 3 feet by 3 feet and weighing 1,500 pounds is selling for $220 per ton. Lower quality alfalfa hay in the same size bales can be bought for as little as $180 per ton, he said.
Top quality alfalfa in traditional small, square bales is hard to find. "There isn't as much demand for it anymore because it isn't as economical to process, and fewer producers are asking for it. About the only market for such bales comes from people owning one or two horses. Such hay, if you can find it, will cost $10 to 12 per bale."
McMahan said he has top-quality coastal bermuda grass hay in large, square bales weighing 1,000 to 1,200 pounds costing $110 a ton. Most of the round bale wheat hay baled earlier this spring will bring $85 per ton, he said.
McMahan has farmed crops and raised cattle; he’s owned and managed a dairy, and worked in hay production all of his life. "I sold my dairy, and hay production is my main business now, growing, baling, hauling, buying and selling it."