29 September 1995

Hay shortage being hyped up

HAY may be in short supply, but buyers should not panic as much of the talk is hype, says Christopher Trower, vice-president of the British Hay and Straw Merchants Association.

"The drought has turned a delicately-balanced situation into a shortage," he says. "But all is not lost."

Buyers should remember that hay is typically sold by producers at two times of the year: Direct from the field in June and July; and in the winter months after Christmas, he says.

"Because of the apparent shortage, merchants are constantly receiving enquiries at present which they are unable to supply. And this artificially heightens the apparent shortage.

"There is evidence," says Mr Trower, "that supplies are available from Europe and North America; and once harvest is complete, merchants will be exploring the cost of importing hay.

"While this will not be cheap, the quality should be excellent and more attractive than some domestic hay now being offered at £4 or £5 a bale."

In addition, he points out that there may be more good hay in storage than is thought. Usually, 25% of English hay is spoilt by the weather, he suggests, but this year it will be a far smaller amount.

He also says that higher prices may prompt farmers who traditionally feed hay to cattle to find alternative foodstuffs and sell the surplus.

Buyers, he says, should shop around and ask to be put on several merchants customer lists in anticipation of supplies eventually reaching the market.

Overall, Mr Trower attributes the present shortage mainly to changing grass conservation practices as farmers who traditionally would have made hay have favoured silage production.

Cattle farmers have also benefited, he says, from plant breeding advances which have inadvertently led to more nutritious straw.

Although sheep and calves are still fed hay, he says, the typical dairy farmer has found "more reliable alternatives".

And while this has to some extent led to a surplus of hay becoming available in past years, Mr Trower points out that the growth in popularity of horses has generated a strong demand for small baled hay. &#42

Uneconomic returns, unreliable weather and high labour costs have contributed to the decline in hay production, says Chistopher Trower.