Long winters, cool springs challenge local growers | TSLN.com

Long winters, cool springs challenge local growers

Jackson Bolstad
for Rapid City Journal

Dwight Kitzan pulls apart wilted alfalfa plants at his ranch near Nisland. Moisture from winter storms and heavy spring rains have hurt South Dakota's alfalfa crop. Photo by Eric Ginnard, Journal staff

Dwight Kitzen has been doing circles the past few weeks, going as fast as he can on first the swather and then the baler.

He's playing catch up thanks to the weather.

Kitzen, 57, should be irrigating his fields for a second alfalfa cutting. But instead he's busy with the first one after spring rains delayed by about two weeks the cutting and baling of their first alfalfa cutting.

Kitzen finally finished cutting 250 acres of hay on Tuesday at his ranch near Nisland.

But despite the delays, the first cutting is yielding the most hay West River farmers and ranchers have seen in a few years. At the same time, however, the delay has allowed much of the alfalfa crop to turn from a vegetative state to a reproductive state, diminishing quality and market prices.

Sales of alfalfa are based largely on quality, which is graded by how much can be eaten and the energy needed to consume it. Better quality means the animal can consume it easier and eat more, which means healthier and better nourished animals.

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That is especially important in South Dakota, one of the largest alfalfa producers in the nation, said Dave Ollila, a specialist with South Dakota State University Extension.

Sales of South Dakota alfalfa hay have stagnated in recent years as the quality has declined, said Kitzan, citing wet springs and long winters the past two years in the western part of the state.

In 2013, alfalfa cuttings were hurt by a late start to the growing season and then heavy rains in the spring. Finally, an early start to winter cut short the growing season.

"2013 was hard. There was a lot of production, we just couldn't get it up to quality," Ollila said.

The weather has essentially repeated itself this year, Ollila said.

Kitzan said he hasn't seen any hay moving out of the immediate area recently, but said it is still being bought locally since it is affordable for livestock producers.

In western South Dakota, sales of "good" quality alfalfa were $125 for large round bales (1,000 pounds) on July 10, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In southeast Colorado, meanwhile, sales of "supreme" large square bales were as high as $250 on July 10 and in central and western Wyoming "good" quality large squares sold for $150.

A year ago on July 11, "good" quality large round bales in western South Dakota sold for a high of $175, as well as in 2012.

Much of the best quality hay in western South Dakota has been purchased by dairy producers in drought-stricken areas in Colorado over the past few years, Ollila said.

But selling alfalfa is not the easiest thing to do, especially in South Dakota. The market for hay tends to be local since it's so expensive to ship alfalfa to other regions if it is not considered high quality.

"The reason (buyers) come here to get alfalfa is because it's cheap. It has to equal the amount that they're paying for it there," Kitzan said. "You always go where you can make a buck."

If buyers pay more for South Dakota alfalfa than their local price for the same quality, they are losing money, Kitzan said.

Kitzan said that leave's South Dakota in a predicament.

"Unless we can ship that alfalfa hay out of here, I don't see us competing with the rest of the U.S. in terms of dollars," he said.

While the quality is down, the amount of alfalfa being cut is up, which is good news for many ranchers. Lower quality alfalfa is used to supplement feed for cattle. Alfalfa producers also haven't been able to produce much in hay because of dry weather and early winters in the past few years.

This spring's moisture has been a welcome relief to Pat Trask, who has a ranch southeast of Elm Springs. Trask and many of his neighbors are seeing yields of around 3 tons to the acre.

"That's probably two times the normal average for western South Dakota per acre average," Trask said.

As for prices, Trask said he isn't worried since there is a national shortage of alfalfa.

"Protein is expensive and given that the protein food commodities are experiencing some supply shortages, there's abundant customers chasing protein," he said.

But despite the prolonged shortage of commodities like alfalfa over the past few years, markets last year held steady, a strange occurrence, Ollila said.

This year has started out with great potential to not only replenish hay stocks but to have a high quality second and third cutting if the weather cooperates, he said.

"Every year is a gamble and you just roll with the punches," Ollila said. "You try to set yourself up management wise to take advantage of those opportunities."

Reprinted with permission from the Rapid City Journal