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With drought shrinking livestock feed supplies, Minnesota hay auction fills a need

Hay prices are up $50-$100 per ton over last year, part of the lingering effects of a drought in northern Minnesota and much of the western U.S.

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SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — Les Bell describes the 2021 hay crop at his cattle farm at Motley, Minnesota, as “ pretty much nonexistent.”

So on March 3, Bell found himself in Sauk Centre at the hay auction, one of the largest in the region, for a load of hay for his grass-fed beef cattle. And he would have to pay a pretty good price for it.

Les Bell at the hay auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
Les Bell of Motley, Minnesota, was at the hay auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota on March 3 for the first time this winter. He said the auction provides a much-needed service to livestock producers like himself.
Evan Girtz / Agweek

Hay prices are up $50-$100 per ton over last year, part of the lingering effects of a drought in northern Minnesota and much of the western U.S.

While prices are high, so is the quality of the hay, which tends to improve when there is enough rain, but not a lot of humidity.

Bell markets grass-fed beef in Brainerd, Minnesota, about 20 miles to the east of his farm. He has cow-calf pairs and turns calves out to pasture.

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“We pretty much grazed everything we had, didn’t much of a hay crop at all,” Bell said

With many livestock producers in northern Minnesota short on hay, the Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre is a resource, where buyers and sellers can connect.

Al Wessel and Kevin Winter are the owners of Mid-American Auction, which marked 50 years in 2021.

“The supply is a little bit more limited, not to a point where it’s a real concern but the prices have increased dramatically,” Wessel said.

Bid spotters in blue jackets watch the crowd gathered at Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on March 3.
Bid spotters in blue jackets watch the crowd gathered at Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on March 3.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Bell said the auction is “like the supermarket.”

“You come and pick what you want. And there’s a lot of selection, different kinds of hay, what quality you are willing to pay for,” he said.

Wessel said the auction generally serves about a 100-mile radius around Sauk Centre, right on Interstate 94 in the middle of Minnesota’s dairy country and on the south edge of the state's prime beef producing region. But some hay will come in from as far away as 500 miles and ship that far when sold.

Like supermarkets that let customers order online, Mid-American will fill orders for established customers.

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But also like a supermarket, buying hay is “kind of like buying a watermelon,” Wessel said. “You want to see it, you want to touch it.”

Al Wessel works as the auctioneer at Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota on March 3, 2022.
Al Wessel, left, works as the auctioneer at Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota on March 3, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Bell said he knew that prices, which are up as much as $50 to $100 a ton over last winter, would be high this spring but “it's worse than what we expected,” Bell said.

At the March 3 sale, one lot of large square bales at 25.5% protein sold for $245 a ton.

“Either pay it or go without, simple as that,” Bell said.

While this was his first trip to the hay auction this year, he has bought there in the past.

“I think Al and Kevin run a first class operation here,” Bell said. “I’m glad that they’re here. It’s a service to this area.”

Robert Siltanen is a third generation dairy farmer at Kettle River in northeast Minnesota. His 150 acres of hay ground is usually enough to get his 40-cow through the winter.

He said he was losing production because they weren’t eating as good of forage as they should have been.

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He said last summer “you could just watch the fields dry up.” Now, he is having to buy hay every week to make it through the winter, though he doesn’t travel to the Sauk Centre auction.

“You had to go and borrow money to go and buy feed, you know,” Siltanen said. “They’ll only give you so much. … So you’ve got to find ways to make it last.”

The good news is that there is quality hay available to buy. “It’s just that they want premium prices for it,” Siltanen said.

Mark Harth, a dairy farmer at Hinckley in northeast Minnesota, who is a regular buyer at Mid-American, is actually buying less hay this year because of the higher prices. His hay crop was short last summer but he is feeding some two-year old hay he still had on hand.

When shopping for hay, he said he looks for “nothing less than 170 on the feed value and, honestly, nothing less than 22 on the protein,” he said.

Mark Harth of Hinckley, Minnesota, looks at a card with information about the load of hay he just bought at auction at Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on March 3, 2022.
Mark Harth of Hinckley, Minnesota, looks at information about the load of hay he just bought at auction at Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on March 3, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

He said usually there would only be five or 10 loads with the numbers he is looking for but at the Feb. 17 sale “there must have been 30 loads that tested that high.”

“It’s unheard of to have numbers like what they’ve had the last couple sales and to have that much,” Harth said.

A card displays information about a load of hay for sale at Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on March 3, 2022.
A card displays information about a load of hay for sale at Mid-American Auction in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on March 3, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Some farmers have been trying to get through the winter with some lower quality feed, but Bell said this is the time of year when having good quality feed matters most for his cattle.

“They get pretty finicky when it starts getting warm out,” Bell said. “And we’re getting closer to calving and the cows will be producing some milk and feeding their babies … It’s pretty important to have some good hay to give that cow nutrition.”

One thing that may be tempering demand is that some farmers, especially older ones considering retirement anyway, sold off cows as the drought intensified.

“There’s been massive liquidations in our area where guys sold whole herds of cows,” Bell said. “They’re gone.”

Matt Gunderson hauls hay from his family’s farm near Raymond, Minnesota, about 60 miles north to Sauk Centre.

He said they got timely rains to produce a good hay crop. “A lot better than other parts of the state,” he said.

His family has gotten out of dairy production, which used to use some hay on site. “Now everything just gets sold,” he said.

Some rains in September did provide some relief for pastures and some optimism going into spring.

And there will likely be some help for Minnesota livestock producers affected by the drought.

Both houses of the Minnesota legislature have passed a drought relief bill, but some differences between the two versions of the bill need to be worked out.

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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