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Hay prices are higher than ever before, hurting producers and customers

A man stands next to a large stack of hay bales and a tractor.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Tom Johnston at one of his hay yards in Sublette County. He said he had to charge more for hay this year than ever before because of inflation.

The cost of goods has increased in America by about nine percent over the last year, which is the largest increase in 40 years. It has affected the price of everything, including groceries, gas, clothes and hay, an essential good for livestock in our region.

Fall is the time of year in Wyoming when many livestock owners are buying hay. The typical horse will eat about two tons of hay over a winter. This year the price is almost double from two years ago.

"Probably $250 a ton and up," said Brett Moline, the director of governmental and public affairs for the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation.

He said just two years ago the price of hay per ton was about $150. He added that year-old hay would typically go a little cheaper, but there is no hay left over from last year.

"Not just in Wyoming, but you get from South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, all the way to the coast, we were short, tremendously bad, in hay last year," he said.

Last year's drought really limited the amount of hay that could be produced. This year, that was less of an issue. Moline said it was actually a pretty wet spring and summer in most places of the state, but he added that the cost to produce the hay was higher than ever.

"The price of oil drives so many things. Fuel prices were substantially higher than they were a year ago," he said. "But probably the biggest item is fertilizer costs."

Hay producers need fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen to make the crop in bulk.

"For the grass hay, it takes nitrogen to get it to grow," Moline said. "I know one producer up in the Bighorn Basin, without fertilizing, his hay crop would be less than half."

Tom Johnston is a hay producer in Sublette County. He has been producing since the 80s and has a reputation for quality hay as far away as Florida.

This year, he paid $1,700 a ton on fertilizer - in the past, it was $500. So higher costs for him means higher costs of hay for customers.

A man ties ropes over a large stack of hay bales.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Tom Johnston takes the tarp off of his haystack to prep it for customers.

"I feel for my people because a lot of my customers are 20-year customers," Johnston said. "But at the same time, we don't do it for fun. We like what we do, but we're a pretty tight little operation. We don't have room to lose a bunch of money."

He is selling his hay for $325 a ton this year. It is the highest he has ever charged.

Johnston put up about 1,800 tons of hay this year, and it consumes the majority of his summer and fall, sometimes working around the clock.

Johnston predicts the high prices are not sustainable.

"Oh yeah, hay prices are going to crash pretty hard," he said. "Another year or so, I would say next year, they'll be down quite a bit."

Johnston said he thinks that is because people will start selling their horses and demand will go down.

That is actually the case for Spring Moore. She lives in Sublette County and has horses.

"So this winter I've kind of cut down on my number of horses mainly just because of the cost of feeding through the winter," she said.

A person's hand rests on a flake of hay.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media

Moore sold off two horses this year. It is the first time she has had to do that because of hay prices, and she said that means having fewer horses for rodeoing and cowboying.

But even with just one horse in Wyoming, Moore pointed out that hay is a necessity.

"Especially around here because, I mean, some places down South they can feed grass all year long, but around here we don't have that option," she said. "When the snow gets three or four foot deep we have to feed the hay."

Having horses is a way of life for Moore, but if prices keep increasing, she said she will not be able to maintain her herd size.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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