Hay conditions vastly improved this year

BUFFALO — As the sun ducked under the Bighorn Mountains and a golden glow took over the Friday evening sky in early July, hay broker Jason Watts was still in his tractor, making another pass on his hay field during the first cutting of the season. While Watts drove, freshly cut hay dropped out of the back of his tractor's mower and fell into piles waiting to dry under the summer sun before eventually being baled, sold and shipped to ranchers in the region. 

"Last year was a record-high drought. This year will be a rebound," Watts said. "Most years there's a little bit of a carryover of hay from the previous year, (but) all that carryover from last year and the year before were gone. So ranchers and farmers will try to replenish their carryover status to kind of help them get through in bad years." 

Across the field from where Watts was cutting — on a portion of land that had been cut nearly a week earlier — the mix of grass and alfalfa had grown nearly a foot since the first cutting.

Watts attributed this rapid growth to subsurface moisture that has stuck around in the area, unlike last year when it dried up quickly. That moisture is no surprise, as Buffalo experienced its rainiest May and June in the past three years this year, according to data from the National Weather Service.

Kaycee also experienced significant rains over those two months, the data shows, accumulating just over 6 inches of rain.

That rain has helped to significantly lessen drought conditions in the region as well, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which shows that the northeast half of Johnson County is experiencing a moderate drought while the southeast half of the county is experiencing abnormal dryness.

Both of these categories of drought are a significant improvement from just three months ago, when more than two-thirds of the county was experiencing extreme drought.

Karlon Knudson, who grows hay about 40 miles east of Buffalo, said he hasn't gotten as much rain as in other parts of the county, but the amount that did fall came at the right time. This helped him hay his range land for the first time in two years and get a significantly larger yield on his irrigated fields this year.

“Our yield in our irrigated meadows has come up,” he said. “Last year, we got about a ton to the acre, and this year on our first cutting we got about three, three and a half ton to the acre.”

Watts said that with the rain and easing drought, he's seeing a hay crop this year that is 20 to 25% better than what he saw last year, and high temperatures over the past two weeks or so have improved crop growth tremendously.

“In the evenings, when the temperatures get around 60 or above, the grass and the alfalfa will grow all night,” he said. “If it drops below that, it kind of stunts the growth a bunch.”

That growth has a good chance to continue for a quality second cutting later this month, Watts said, with a third cutting more uncertain.

That's because the rain, while valuable, delayed the start of the hay growing season that would likely push a third cutting into a time that is too hot and too dry.

According to the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service, there is a 50% to 60% chance of higher-than-average temperatures across Wyoming in July and a 40% to 50% chance of higher-than-average temperatures over the next three months.

Knudson said that he too will get at least a second cutting and hopes to get a third to help other ranchers who need the hay for this year.

“Our best year, we put up 2,100 ton of hay,” he said. “Last year I think we might have put up 400 ton. And this year, you know, we'll have a second and possibly a third cutting this year and we're guessing to have between 700 and 900 ton.”

Whether or not that third cutting occurs, Watts said, he expects the market to remain pretty strong, even if fewer ranchers are buying hay because they're keeping their own crop to replenish their own stock. With improved moisture this year in areas where Watts sold plentiful hay to last year — including Montana, Utah and Idaho — he said prices have come down from some of the outrageous highs that occurred during the drought last year.

And the quality of the crop in the Johnson County area means more hay going to more local buyers this year.

"I've traveled all over the state, this area is likely the greenest in the whole state,” he said. “Between here and Billings is really good.”