Hay market tight, but concerns with COVID-19-related demand

Significant market opportunities available in Canada and the U.S.

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Demand for Ontario-grown hay remains strong in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 global pandemic, but longer-term effects are more difficult to judge.

“It’s not anything near what other people have had to deal with,” said Ontario Hay and Forage Cooperative chair Fritz Trauttmansdorff of the COVID-19 repercussions for hay growers. He suggested lower-than-average 2019 yields in eastern Canada and the U.S. translate into ready markets for any hay still in storage in Ontario, with many equine and bovine farmers deciding – for the short term at least – to hold on to and keep feeding their livestock.

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Why it matters: Decisions of livestock owners in the wake of the pandemic will directly affect those who sell hay into those markets.

The future, though, remains unclear.

Dairy farmers culled cows when they were told they had to dump milk due to COVID-19 market gyrations. But they also dried off cows earlier than they usually would, and the cows still have to be fed.

“There are concerns, going forward, about the horse racing industry,” Trauttmansdorff told Farmtario. “I’ve heard from some of them that they don’t know if they have a lot of support, and they don’t know if they’re going to survive.”

An agreement was reached in mid-April between Ontario Racing and Ontario Lottery and Gaming to release “purse funds” already committed for scheduled races that had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. Through this process, owners of eligible racehorses have been receiving payouts ($1,500/month for Thoroughbreds, $1,000/month for Standardbreds, $750/month for Quarter Horses) meant to fund boarding, feed and training. But this covers only horses in their racing prime, and doesn’t cover extra costs such as veterinary care.

A recent post on Ontario Racing’s Twitter account advised “it is not anticipated that there will be any live racing in the province during the month of May.” And if racing does resume in June and July, it’s quite possible horses will compete before empty grandstands. The venerable Queen’s Plate at Toronto’s Woodbine raceway, which has been uninterrupted from its annual running since 1860, has been postponed from its original June 27 date but not outright cancelled.

And that only speaks to the situation in Ontario; Trauttmansdorff notes a significant amount of Ontario-grown hay is destined for the U.S. horse racing market – which faces similar upheaval but on an even larger scale.

One of the Hay and Forage Co-op’s more high-profile initiatives is arranging shipments of high-quality alfalfa and/or timothy hay to large-scale dairies in the Middle East and other regions. The group’s chair, however, says poor weather meant there was a limited supply in 2019 of Ontario-grown hay of sufficient quality for export. So there have been no financial repercussions due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and trade.

Quantity, by contrast, wasn’t as much of a challenge in Ontario in 2019. Much of that hay was of sufficient quality for sales into eastern Canada and the US. Those sales continue, with prices remaining solid.

An additional factor has been a few years in a row of strong markets for grains, leading to decisions by many farmers not to include hay in their rotations. This has kept supplies tight.

Trauttmansdorff, a tireless proponent of including hay in rotations due to its benefits in soil health and erosion control, wouldn’t mind seeing more hay available from Ontario fields. But he, along with other leaders of the Hay and Forage Co-op, would also like to see the export market develop.

For 2020, he remains hopeful – both for a high-quality crop, and for the global shipping and trade scenarios to normalize in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So far, it looks like a lot of the crop came through the winter all right,” he said.

“By late summer or early fall, when we get into harvest, if the business keeps opening up (in the wake of COVID-19) like it’s starting to do now, hopefully we’ll be able to ship some hay overseas.”

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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