COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The volatile weather last year brought agricultural and economic challenges that lingered into the winter for many livestock and dairy farmers in the Midwest.

The supply of hay in Ohio was the fourth lowest in 70 years, and the yields were the poorest since the 2012 heat and drought.

The recent shortfall can be traced back to the end of January 2019, when a visit from the polar vortex sent temperatures well below zero for a few days, followed by a freeze-thaw pattern that affected the soil structure. Plants were damaged by subsequent frost heaving, leaving root systems exposed to the elements.

Then came the incessant rains in the spring, making it nearly impossible for farmers to get into the fields until late June, especially in northwestern Ohio. A short-term drought followed a hot, dry late summer and early autumn.

A record 1.5 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted in Ohio in 2019, and overall yields were the lowest since 2008.

More than 5 inches of precipitation fell in central Ohio during an unseasonably mild pattern from late December to late January, leaving the soil is muddy and unfrozen. January in Columbus averaged 7.1 degrees above normal (36.7 degrees — 12th warmest), and produced merely 0.3 inch of snow (5th lowest since 1885).

Two straight years of reduced hay yields in Ohio across the Midwest have also resulted in a shortage of straw used for bedding. The extensive heavy rain pattern in the Midwest 2019 made it even more expensive to find good hay even in surrounding states.

The frequent heavy rain that delayed farmers from getting into the fields resulted in a substantially diminished harvest of quality hay.

Stephen Boyles, a beef specialist with the Department of Animal Sciences at Ohio State, pointed to tan-colored alfalfa bales collected in the fall that would normally be mostly green.

“Leaves are where the real nutrient value is,” Boyle noted, but last year’s cutting had too many stems.”

Diminished hay supplies forced farmers to try alternative warm-season grasses and crops that mature at a later date, and protein supplements to provide additional livestock feed. Grain, hay (alfalfa, dried cut grass), and silage (corn stalks and other plants packed when still moist) are less nutritious options.

Maurice Eastridge, an Ohio State animal science specialist in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, summed up 2019 as “a very challenging year for the livestock industry. We had very wet conditions.”

Aaron Wilson, a climatologist at Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, who also works with the Ohio State Extension program, said, “We know we’re getting warmer. We know we’re getting wetter. But we’re seeing the seasonal distribution change in our rainfall. Intense rainfalls are increasing.”

“We’re in a critical 30- to 45-day window where, what’s winter going to be like?” said Eastridge. Frequent rain and mild temperatures alternating with hard freezes in February and March, would harm the root systems of winter wheat and perpetuate the current shortage.