Eleven of the past 14 years have brought drought to much of the western United States. For horse owners, that’s meant poor grazing and limited supplies of high-priced and often poor-quality hay. When will conditions improve? Not soon, climate-prediction experts at the National Weather Service say. And once again, continuing drought may limit hay production in the coming year.
At the start of 2015 drought affected a swath of territory from the West Coast to the central and southern Great Plains, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration of several government agencies. Extreme or exceptional drought (the most severe level) gripped two large areas, one in the far West (California, Nevada and Oregon) and the other in the southern Plains. Winter and early spring storms weren’t enough to change that.
Above-normal temperatures meant that winter precipitation fell as rain rather than snow in many areas, so the snowpack was well below normal, especially in the far West. The snowpack is an important water source in the West, replenishing streams and groundwater when it melts in spring. This year the region was once again left short. At the same time, record warm temperatures over the last several years have increased evaporation and worsened the drought conditions. Years of drought have left streams, groundwater and reservoirs seriously depleted, in some areas at their lowest levels in 30 years or more.
But despite the drought’s effect on hay production, hay prices may not rise as steeply in 2015 as they have in recent years. The Northwest Farm Credit Service and other agencies that monitor hay stocks say that weaker demand from dairy farms and a lull in the growth of hay exports may take some pressure off the supply.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.