Low beef prices, high feed prices, too little moisture last summer, too much this winter.
The result is a shortage of hay in some parts of the West that has left ranchers hunting down enough feed to make it through what promises to be a long, tough winter.Ranchers thinking about selling part of their herd because they can't afford to buy hay face one of the most depressed cattle markets in the past seven to eight years.
"It's going to be like '73, when cattle weren't worth anything and your agriculture was down the tube," said Ralph Walker of Albuquerque N.M.
Walker, owner of 4-W Feed Co., has supplied the hay for the livestock at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver for the past 10 years. This year it was a challenge to scrape together the 5,000 bales for the cattle, horses and other animals.
"Montana is out of hay," he said. "The boys in Montana are going into Nebraska right now, begging to buy the haystacks."
Walker paid $125 per ton for Nebraska hay, up from the $80 to $90 per ton he paid last year.
Ranchers from Alaska to New Mexico are paying the same inflated prices. The shortage of hay in some parts of the West comes on top of at least two years of depressed cattle prices due in part to a large supply of beef and other market pressures.
Cows are fetching from $200 to $250, said Dan Kniffen, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Denver. In a good year, the price would be from $900 to $1,100.
Droughts last summer drastically cut hay production in places like Montana, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Then came the early snows that forced ranchers to pull their cattle off the range and start feeding hay earlier than normal.
Other states, such as Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, have good hay supplies, although a long, snowy winter could deplete the stocks. Those states are getting numerous requests for hay from Montana and Washington ranchers.
Montana has opened a hay hotline to match buyers and sellers but many calls for help go unanswered. Some livestock producers are looking north to Canada for relief.
"Some ranchers had to go as far as 600 miles to get ahold of hay," said Beth Almond of the Montana Stockgrowers in Helena. "Some of our members aren't finding any."
Ranchers must buy Canada hay through brokers, but buying directly from producers would be less expensive, she said.
"We are currently in contact with our congressional delegation to see if we can't make it a little bit easier to obtain feed from Canada," Almond said.
Cattle and horse owners in Alaska have turned to Canada for feed.
"We've had dry springs, so the hay production was down," said Don Quarberg, extension agent with the University of Alaska.
Some ranchers have cut back their herds and ranchers who grow their own hay are holding onto any surplus rather than selling it, Quarberg said. Hay prices have shot up about 20 percent to about $180 to $200 per ton.
The deep snows socking southern Colorado and northern New Mexico should help relieve the drought there, but for the time being it is creating problems for ranchers because they have to feed their cattle more hay.
"Hay is at a premium. The prices are 60 percent or more above a year ago," said Marvin Reynolds, an extension agent with the Colorado State University.
Hay production levels in south-central Colorado dropped 10 percent to 80 percent because of last year's drought, Reynolds said. Ranchers in the six-county San Luis Valley have had to travel as far as Steamboat Springs in north-central Colorado to find feed because much Colorado hay already was under contract to out-of-state businesses.
"Most producers have either culled their herd or are ready to cull the herd so they have enough hay to carry them through," said Rey Torres, an extension agent in Taos County in northern New Mexico.
In the last year, 13 Taos county ranchers have gone out of business.
"That is really high for any given year," he said. "And the fact that the market is depressed means they have just lost money all the way around."
The problem facing South Dakota ranchers isn't necessarily a shortage of hay. Heavy snows and howling winds have closed a big stretch of the northern part of the state, stopping those with hay from reaching those without it.
If the bad weather continues, the state's hay supplies could drop dangerously low, said South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Darrel Cruea.