Two years ago, Jim Takala made 1,200 large, round hay bales off the top of United Taconite's tailings dike in Forbes.
This year, he made 65.
Northland farmers are facing a hay crisis.
As a summer drought lingers and bone-dry hay fields yield sparse results, many farmers say they're already guaranteed of not having enough hay to feed their livestock through winter.
“It's a problem,” Takala, a dairy farmer from Iron, said. “It's probably 30 to 50 percent of normal.”
Takala currently has 440 milking cows and 90 calves. During winter, his herd typically consumes 23 round bales per day.
But with the 2021 hay harvest at dangerously low levels, Takala and other farmers are facing major decisions.
“I'll have to sell 70 or 80 of the calves,” Takala said. “I'll sell some more mature cattle too. We'll probably have to also look at other options like sending some of them out of the area. But you have to maintain a core business.”
As hay balers roll up bales across the region, farmers across northern Minnesota and into the western part of the state are seeing extremely poor hay crops compared to previous years, Troy Salzer, a University of Minnesota Extension educator in St. Louis County said.
“In most cases in St. Louis County, we are seeing about 25 to 45 percent of a hay crop for a first cut,” Salzer said. “A majority of the folks I have talked to are in about that 30 percent range.”
Even in fields that have been fertilized, yields are about 50 percent of normal, Salzer said.
“It's very significant,” Salzer said of the hay shortage. “I am very concerned.”
Water for herds is also becoming a concern.
A farmer near Orr who relies on a stream for his herd's drinking water, has seen the stream dry up, Salzer said.
A farmer in Gnesen near Duluth who uses a newer well for a beef operation, isn't getting enough water from the well for his herd, he said
Areas south of New Prague into southern Minnesota have received adequate rainfall, keeping hay yield at normal rates, Salzer said.
However, in the northland, farmers are already starting to shrink herds that they simply can't feed or can't afford to feed, he said.
“There have been a lot of cattle moving out of St. Louis County already,” Salzer said. “A farmer from Cook who I talked to shared with me that they're moving five today and they've already moved some pairs and bulls. We are going to see some very dramatic changes in relation to that.”
At Marvin Pearson's 300-head Rice River Farm southwest of Cook, the hay crop and pasture conditions are as bad as Pearson has seen since he began farming as a teenager, the 74-year-old said.
“It's horrible,” Pearson said. “We've had dry years before, but nothing like this. It's probably the driest I've ever seen. I've never seen the pastures looking like this.”
Pearson says his fields are yielding as little as 20 to 30 percent of the normal hay crop.
“We made nine round bales off 30 acres,” Pearson said. “Normally, we get two bales to an acre off that field.”
In Little Swan south of Hibbing, Jason Helstrom has about 250 head of beef cattle.
Like other farmers in the region, Helstrom is on edge.
“We're probably getting about half of what we should be getting,” Helstrom said. “We actually did a field last week that was better than last year, but that was unusual. We're just getting enough to get through the winter. And if you have to buy it, it's pretty much unaffordable if you can find it.”
Farmers are already scrambling to buy hay wherever they can.
An area woman who normally buys hay from Pearson, found some hay for sale in Ashland, Wis., Pearson said.
“We normally sell a lot of hay, but this year we haven't sold any,” Pearson said. “It's sad. It's on our minds constantly when is it going to rain? If we don't get rain soon, it's going to be a bad situation.”
With high demand, hay prices have skyrocketed, Salzer said.
“Medium quality hay for beef or horses usually sells for about $100 to $120 a ton,” Salzer said. “At auction, it's now more like $180 to $200 a ton. They have a hay auction in Sauk Rapids and prices doubled in late June compared to late May.”
With the hay shortage and high prices, many area farmers are already moving to reduce their herd numbers, Salzer said.
“I'm fairly certain we are going to be cutting most herds by 10 to 15 percent,” Salzer said. “Some have moved their herds already. Some are moving their cattle for custom feeding.”
Custom feeding is relocating cattle temporarily to another location where hay is more plentiful and pastures are growing.
But that also means transportation costs.
“I'm talking to a fellow about sending some heifers to be custom fed,” Takala said. “It's only about 100 miles away.”
Geographically, the poor hay crops start around about Pine City and continue north, Takala said.
Helstrom says he has about 40 to 50 days of grazing remaining in his 350 acres of pastures.
“But if nothing grows, we'll just have to get rid of some herd,” Helstrom said. “We might be better off cutting some herd and selling hay.”
With a large sell-off of animals, Takala sees market changes ahead.
“Short-term the issue is just having enough pasture and forage to maintain them,” Takala said. “A lot of people are going to cull very severely or sell down a lot. The national herd will sell down, so in a year or a year-and-a-half, there will be significantly higher prices (for animals).”
Prospects of a second cut for those farmers who made an early first cut, are also diminishing rapidly.
“A few weeks ago, I kept telling people we still have some growing season left,” Helstrom said. “But as each day passes, I get more nervous.”
The situation is so bad that farmers like Helstrom are pondering any potential feeding options.
“We have thousands of acres of wooded land and Potlatch and Blandin land in the area,” Helstrom said. “We could run the cattle through those woods and it would help. It might even be beneficial for the trees. It's a concept for them to consider.”