WASILLA -- State officials late last week issued a dire-sounding warning: Alaska's livestock producers face a potential hay shortage this winter.
A one-two punch of mid-May snow followed by a six-week drought cut the supply of Alaska-grown hay from Homer to Fairbanks by a third to a half, state Division of Agriculture officials say.
"A lot of the hay producers knew about it," state veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach said this week. "But a lot of the consumers that buy hay, horse owners or small farms, we just want to make sure they're fully aware of issues so they could make arrangements now before things got really desperate in the middle of winter."
By January, animals and especially cattle need not only protein and nutrients but fiber to generate enough body heat to stay warm, Gerlach said.
That means finding nutritional replacements for Alaska hay or contending with possible infection, parasites or even lower conception rates in the spring.
Some producers are culling their herds rather than come up short later.
The owners of Sunset Acres Farm outside Wasilla sold off a third of their sheep and goats in advance of the winter.
Suzanne Nevada and Rick Williams grow hay on the 120-acre farm up Knik-Goose Bay Road. But they lost about a third of their crop this year. A January rainstorm flooded pastures, Nevada said. The weather warmed up in April, triggering new growth. Then the rain froze and turned to snow in May.
The farm that in its best year harvested 1,300 square bales this year got 450.
"It was a mad scramble for anyone that has livestock like we do," Nevada said. "We had to buy hay this year. We've never had to buy hay before."
Another livestock owner scrambling for hay this week was Chance Green.
Green owns TLC Freedom Trucking, the North Pole company that lost a tractor-trailer in a fire on the Alaska Highway Tuesday morning. The driver, who pulled over when he smelled something funny, escaped injury.
Also destroyed in the fire: 21 tons of Canadian hay worth about $15,000 bound for four horses and a goat on the Green farm.
The truck was insured. The hay, bought in Fort St. John, British Columbia for personal use, wasn't.
Green said he hopes long-term to bring up another hay shipment but in the meantime is suddenly on the hunt for any local supplies he can find.
"It's been a long day," he said Tuesday afternoon.
The Alaskan hay farmer is a rare breed.
Alaska produces less hay than almost every other state, according to Casey Dinkel, an agronomist at the Alaska Plant Materials Center.
"The theme in Alaska is we've usually got a hay shortage just simply for the fact we don't produce enough for the amount of animals we have here," Dinkel said.
Delta is the state's top hay-growing region, followed by the Matanuska Valley and the Kenai Peninsula, with additional fields in the Kenny Lake area and on Kodiak Island.
Roughly 70 percent of the 20,000 acres of hay produced in Alaska annually is fed to horses, Dinkel said. The rest goes to other grazers like cattle, bison, reindeer, elk, muskox, goats and sheep.
Horse owners would appear to be the most vulnerable to the current hay shortage because they don't tend to have lots of storage space but do prefer high-quality feed for their animals, state officials say. The impact is hard to gauge. The state doesn't track the number of horses here. Some horse owners also already import alfalfa hay or buy pellets.
Because of imports from Canada and the Lower 48, officials say, it's unlikely farmers will run out of hay outright.
It will just cost more.
"People in the business are already buying Canadian hay, they've got it here in anticipation people are going to need it," said Danny Consenstein, Palmer-based executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Alaska Farm Service Agency.
Still, the situation is going to be a problem for some farmers, Consenstein said.
"I'm already hearing some livestock owners starting to think (they're) going to have to cull the herd," he said. "They're already working on such thin margins as it is. If the price of hay to feed the herds over the winter goes up, it's not worth it."
Country Garden Farms owner Bill Longbrake said the state's warnings should have gone out earlier.
Hay is already in short supply and costs are rising. His price for Alaska hay is $500 a ton, $650 for Canadian. Prices around Fairbanks are about $750 a ton.
"I started telling people in June that there was a problem and I got absolutely no response," Longbrake said. "They just weren't on the ball."
Longbrake said he shared his concerns about local supplies with University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service agents. They talked to other agents in other parts of the state who said there was no problem, and that was the message conveyed to the USDA, he said. "Then in August, all of a sudden everybody is saying there's a problem."
Consenstein said agency did take action regarding short supplies of hay, at least in the Interior. The USDA lifted conservation restrictions on pasture in the Delta Junction area to allow haying and grazing, he said. The drought conditions that triggered that emergency decision for Delta didn't apply elsewhere.
Alaska's food and forage-growing system is so small, it's vulnerable to ups and downs like this, Consenstein said. "When we get a bump, it's a big bump."
There is talk of a broader farm disaster declaration based on this year's weather.
The office of Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, has contacted the USDA farm agency about a declaration, Consenstein said. That could follow two routes. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture could declare drought-stricken regions of Alaska a disaster, allowing for emergency loans that could be used for everything from feed costs to the mortgage, he said. Gov. Sean Parnell could also declare a disaster, which probably would also allow the state to tap into state programs and also provide relief for people with state agricultural loans.
The USDA only has data that only supports a disaster declaration for producers in Fairbanks and Delta, Consenstein said.
"If the governor does it, he may have more flexibility," he said. "We're going to let the Legislature move it up to the governor."
In a ironic twist, the warmest October on record in the Anchorage area left grazing pastures snow-free and some farmers haying into November.
Even that seeming silver lining comes with a barb. Grazing pastures too late into the fall can compromise a field's green-up in the spring, Gerlach said.
"I think a hard thing for the general public to understand is the gamble that farmers are constantly taking," he said.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER