CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming is facing one of its worst hay harvests in terms of acreage in nearly 80 years, according to new U.S. Agriculture Department estimates.

Hay is Wyoming's biggest cash crop, and it also is suffering the most from a lack of rain earlier in the season.

USDA crop yield estimates released late last week project Wyoming's overall hay harvest this year to yield about 925,000 acres of hay.

If realized, that would make 2012 the single worst year for Wyoming hay acreage since the Dust Bowl days of 1934.

The overall tonnage of hay expected to be harvested in Wyoming is 1.82 million tons, down 23 percent from 2011 and the worst production since 2002.

Other crops are faring better this year, particularly sugar beets and dry edible beans. Yields are expected to rise by 23 and 36 percent, respectively.

The poor hay crop has sent hay prices soaring, according to Todd Ballard, director of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Cheyenne.

"We're at record levels right now in price, which is good for those guys who have hay to sell," he tells the Wyoming Tribune Eagle ( "But it's detrimental to those guys who have to buy hay to feed their livestock, because they have no pasture."

Ballard said that 79 percent of the pasture and grazing lands in Wyoming are rated "poor" to "very poor."

The high hay prices and lack of pasture have forced many ranchers to sell their cattle due to lack of feed. Some have even had to send their stock directly to slaughter since even feed lots are now having trouble with corn also hitting record price levels.

Michael Schmitt is co-owner of Torrington Livestock Markets, one of the state's largest markets for cattle. He said the number of cattle coming through his market is well above what it normally is for this time of year.

Schmitt said his biggest concern is for small- to mid-sized ranchers since they are the ones least likely to be able to bounce back from this year's drought.

And if the drought was to persist for another year, Schmitt said there are many older ranchers who may simply choose to get out of the profession altogether.

"You're looking at, at best, an 18-month turnaround before you see numbers getting rebuilt," he said. "The average age of the rancher in Wyoming is 61 years. If they have to wait two to three years to get back in it, they just won't do it."


Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle,