Sudden, major spike in hay prices hits livestock farmers hard

A hay bale, plus white stork, in a field in Estonia.
A hay bale, plus white stork, in a field in Estonia. Source: SCANPIX/PÄRNU POSTIMEES/ANTS LIIGUS

The meager hay harvest this year, the result of a cold spring accompanied by a long period of drought through to mid-summer, has meant many small producers in Estonia having to sell off dairy cattle for meat, as there simply is not sufficient fodder for them, or if there is, prices are too high to be able to afford.

The situation has affected other sources of animal feed and their producers, and even affects exports.

Some producers say the situation is starting to get a little better, but on the other had, full recovery may take a long time.

Midway through last month, the Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce (EPKK) held a seminar on feeding stocks, at which Pilleriin Puskar, chair of the chamber's dairy committee, stated that recovery from this year's drought is years off.

Both the business environment and the climate have changed, she added, while in order to survive winter periods in the future, one option is to change the makeup of crops which go to make silo feed, making these more diverse.

Puskar said: "We must certainly ensure that our herds do not fall below a critical size, while now we have to think about what feed alternatives we have."

"Up to now, we have been able to work on the assumption that our feed is based largely on grass silage, with maize silage second; however, the last few years have already demonstrated that maize silos will be most important, followed by grain silos, alfalfa-barley silos and under-sown grass could be alongside that. It would also be wise to carry out some additional sowing to obtain animal fodder, so that rye silage could be given to the animals, in the fall," said.

That animal breeders are in a most difficult situation given the scarcity of fodder and the difficult choices facing them, was also recognized at the seminar. Cattle populations have begun to fall in any case, while drought and food shortages can lead to the loss of breeding herds altogether.

In the immediate term, the shortages are leading to herds having to be sold to slaughter.

Pae Farmer OÜ, which is involved in arable farming, milk production and calf breeding in Juuru, Rapla County, is selling 800 beef cattle, in order that dairy cows will not starve.

"There has simply been no grass growth. The picture is the same with grain, there is no straw, and no grain either. In the bigger picture, there is a dearth, everywhere," Pae board member Mikk Meinberg said, noting the situation has dealt many producers a death blow. 

"Small producers are going down like mushrooms; they are shutting down one-by-one. The larger producers can breathe a bit easier, for the meantime."

Although there have been poor hay harvests in the past, this year's situation is more of a cumulative effect of several poor harvests in a row, he added, while stocks are down to zero.

This is evidenced by the need to sell off herds for meat, and the situation is similar in Latvia and Lithuania, Meinberg added.

This year's hay harvest is two-thirds less than usual, and whereas a 200kg hay bale used to cost €20, now the price is no less than €60 in Latvia, and even a €100-per-bale in Estonia.

Straw and silage have similarly become more expensive, Meinberg added, rising in price to €100 per tonne, compared with €30-€40 per tonne last year.

98 percent of the production of Golden Fields Factory in Lääne-Viru County, which produces animal feed including hay, is exported to the Middle East. 

The firm's development manager Alo Alt said that this year they have hardly received any hay in Estonia, given the scarcity.

One hectare now yields only 20-30 percent of the normal haul, and this is in turn due to the coincidence of two factors that are bad for crop production, ie. a cold snap in spring and even into June, along with the lengthy period without rain.

The volumes of hay available are much smaller this year - tens of thousands of tons of hay were expected to be harvested, but in fact not even a thousand have been as of the time of writing.

Ironically, Golden Fields usually exports due to a surfeit of hay and other feed most years.

Instead of leaving excess bales to rot, the company thought it wise to export them instead.

At the same time, Alt said the shortage and high price have started to ease.

Whereas a month-and-a-half or two months ago, the issue was a painful one and the prices of a bale of hay rose to fantastic levels, after the weather turned rainy in July, the farmers were able to make silage from the second crop, and now the grass from the third crop is also growing well.

 In addition, many tons of silage are coming from the maize fields, and all this has taken the pressure off a bit, he said.

Meanwhile Martin Ellervee, manager at Soodevahe Agro in Harju County, which produces hay and dry silage for horses, cattle and other herbivores, is less optimistic, according to whom the crisis is not over yet, despite the fact that the second and third harvests have been better - this is because the first harvest is always the largest and provides up to 50 percent of the total crop, regardless of how subsequent crops fare.

One positive was, Ellervee said, that export provides a minimum price for hay; in the past, overproduction has led to hay literally having to be given away.

Soodevahe Agro has upped its prices by about 50 percent, but Ellervee said doubted whether anyone would actually buy hay at some of the prices that can be found online, which he called "insane".


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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