Hay acreage increasing in Ontario

Extra acreage should help reduce costs for farmers who have to buy hay

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Hay fields in southwestern Ontario appear in generally good shape following a challenging fall 2019 and winter 2020. But the same can’t be said in eastern portions of the province.

Why it matters: For farms that are reliant on hay for livestock feed, a strong early stand is crucial for good yield through the rest of the season.

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“We thought maybe there would be quite a bit of winterkill in this area, but so far we aren’t seeing that,” said ProRich Seeds’ Deb Pettman from the company’s Oxford County head office. “If you look around the area, the fields are greening up pretty nice.”

Speaking to Farmtario in early May, she added, “we haven’t had a lot of people call up and say they need to replace anything . . . and they would have known that by now.”

Fritz Trauttmansdorff, chair of the Ontario Hay and Forage Cooperative and a producer near Brantford, confirmed Pettman’s assessment in the south. “So far, it looks like (the crop in his area) came through the winter all right.”

It’s a relief, given often unfavourable seeding conditions – both in spring and fall – during a persistently wet 2019. This was followed by a winter 2020 during which temperatures very often rose above freezing, leading to repeated freeze/thaw cycles, frequent wet conditions, and poor protective snow cover.

In the east, though, those factors – particularly more frequent wintertime dips into freezing conditions – are being blamed for significant hay crop winterkill.

Jon Gough, vice president of Eastern Canadian sales for Mapleseed/Pickseed, says his team has fielded numerous recent calls from growers in eastern Ontario and Quebec concerned about the viability of their hay stands.

He likens the situation to spring a year ago, when many producers across the province were faced with decisions ranging from reseeding, abandoning hay crops, or in the case of dairy producers who couldn’t do without the feed, switching to later-planted “emergency forages” such as millet or sorghum.

Gough confirmed, though, that winterkill is much less prevalent in the rest of Ontario in 2020. And he noted it’s still early compared with the very late-to-warm spring of 2019; up until May 20, it’s generally still safe to plant most common forages and still expect a summer harvest.

Early harvest of what is already in the ground, though, is also crucial for many dairy producers; the variable 2019 Ontario hay crop, according to OMAFRA Grazing Specialist Christine O’Reilly, left supplies “tight on many farms” across the province.

The shortage of supply, though, contributes to keeping the price high for good-quality hay despite the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauttmansdorff says, for those with hay for sale, demand remains strong on the dairy side.

And O’Reilly says OMAFRA’s projections are that due to a few years of good returns, acres seeded to hay will increase in 2020 compared to 2019.

She estimates just over 1.5 million acres of hay were harvested in Ontario in 2019, with an additional 47,000 acres seeded down.

“There is always a market for high-quality hay,” she says, citing dairy, the equine sector, and export markets as examples. “A feasibility study done by the Ontario Hay and Forage Co-op says that hay worth $260/tonne ($0.12/lb) can be as profitable as growing corn or soybeans . . . If growers can meet the specifications of buyers in a premium market, hay can be an excellent cash crop.”

That being said, she cautioned growers need to “treat (hay) like a cash crop” and not something to fit in between what might be viewed as more important tasks on the farm.

“This means paying attention to the agronomy – planting when conditions are fit, implementing a good fertility program, and scouting to stay ahead of pests and diseases. Good hay doesn’t just happen; like any other crop, it takes management.”

O’Reilly also advised knowing who the potential buyers are, and what quality and species mix they’re interested in. To rein in the costs of getting into the business, perhaps explore options of selling standing hay crops to livestock-raising neighbours. Or partner with other cash-cropping neighbours to purchase machinery.

“It spreads out the investment in equipment and creates a harvest crew,” the OMAFRA forage specialist said.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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