ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Hay is one of the basic materials on a farm. It's important. But dried grass is not the kind of thing most farmers or ranchers would keep under lock and key until recently. The ongoing drought has meant less hay to go around. Production of alfalfa, for instance, is down 15 percent this year. So hay prices are soaring and so is the number of hay thefts. Grace Hood of member station KUNC reports from Colorado, one of several states where hay rustling is on the rise.
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Before this year, rancher Ted Swanson had only been the victim of theft once in his life.
TED SWANSON: I had a bicycle stolen in Chicago about many, many, many years ago.
HOOD: Fast forward to Labor Day weekend. That's when Swanson noticed about $5,000 worth of hay missing from his Northern Colorado ranch. It had been sitting in his field near the side of the road.
SWANSON: They stole some 4x4x8s, some 3x4x8s and some big round bales.
HOOD: About enough hay to fill a semi truck. Swanson suspects someone stole the hay to sell and make a profit. The job sounds very labor intensive until you learn that thieves hotwired Swanson's front loader tractor to do the heavy lifting.
SWANSON: Apparently, I left it idling because it was completely out of fuel when we discovered everything so...
HOOD: You must have been shocked.
SWANSON: Very much, yes.
HOOD: Colorado isn't the only place hay has been stolen. Farmers in California, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma have also been the victims of theft. Hay is especially valuable during the winter months when dairy farmers and ranchers typically can't use snow-covered pastures for grazing their livestock. But this summer's drought decreased supply across the country causing a crunch for everyone.
TESS NORVELL: Hay is a hot commodity right now.
HOOD: Tess Norvell tracks hay prices for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Colorado, one of the places where hay is most expensive. Here, ranchers are actually seeing a shortage for the second year in a row. Back in 2011, Colorado hay started flowing into Texas because that state was in a drought.
NORVELL: We've been trying to pull hay in from other regions, but since other regions or other states are just as dry as we are, it's just a pretty dire situation.
HOOD: Norvell says it's the worst right now for smaller outfits that can't buy huge quantities in bulk, like Windsor Dairy. Under the watchful eye of owner Arden Nelson, about a dozen calves eat green alfalfa for lunch.
DR. ARDEN NELSON: It's caviar of the hay world. No doubt about it.
HOOD: Nelson was willing to pay $300 a ton for this premium hay because it's the most nutritious for his growing calves. Here, theft isn't a worry. It's finding enough feed for this 100-cow operation to make it through the winter. After considering shipping in hay from Montana and Nevada, Nelson settled on purchasing truckloads from a neighbor.
NELSON: It doesn't mean we have enough. But we have good hay for this year. It just costs a lot more.
HOOD: More than twice what its cost in previous years for this grass-fed operation. Some of those costs are passed along to Nelson's customers who participate in a raw milk share program. This year, he's instituted a hay surcharge for members.
NELSON: And we've had people pay that willingly and then actually donate money to us on top of that, which makes you feel really, really good.
HOOD: Back on Ted Swanson's ranch, a front loader tractor moves around large bales in the afternoon sun. While police didn't have enough evidence to track down the culprit in his hay theft case, he did make some changes.
SWANSON: Put locks on all the gates, chains and padlocks.
HOOD: But he acknowledges that's not going to stop someone desperate enough to steal.
SWANSON: If someone were really determined, I don't suppose it would stop them but at least maybe slow them down enough.
HOOD: Because hay bales look so similar, it's hard to catch thieves, but not impossible. Earlier this month, an Oklahoma farmer tracked down some stolen hay with the help of a GPS tracker hidden in one of the bales. With so much money at stake, fewer farmers are willing to leave anything to chance. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.