Dried-up pastures and a shortage of hay are vexing Minnesota cattle operations and dairy farms, pushing up feed costs.

Normally, cows now would be munching grass in fields, the low-cost method of feeding. But a good chunk of Minnesota's pasture land has been crisped by arid weather.

Federal data released this past week show that 51 percent of the state's pasture land was in "poor" or "very poor" condition. Only 19 percent was in "good" shape, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Grass has shorter roots than corn, soybeans and other crops, leaving it more susceptible to duress when the rain shuts off, explained Patrick Lunemann, a dairy farmer near Clarissa and president of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association.

"It's one of the first things that shows up as really struggling in a drought," Clarissa said.

When pasture dries up, cattle and dairy operators resort to feeding cows with purchased hay in the summer instead of waiting for October or later.

"I know guys who started haying cows as early as July [of this year]," said Dar Geiss, a Pierz cow and calf operator and president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

While most cattle feed on corn later in their lives, they eat forage in the earlier part.

When haying starts early, cattle operators might need 5 or 6 tons of hay per cow during the winter instead of a more normal 4 tons, Geiss said. But arid weather for two consecutive summers has helped cause a hay shortage.

Plus, hay supplies have been squeezed as more farmers have stopped growing the stuff, using their land instead to capitalize on high prices for corn and soybeans.

The upshot: soaring hay prices. Geiss said that even low-quality hay is selling for $100 a ton these days, when it would normally go for about $45 a ton.

With alfalfa, a legume that serves as high-quality forage for cows, the results have been similar. Not only has it withered under drought, the harsh winter killed off a lot of alfalfa fields in Minnesota.

Lunemann said alfalfa went for $300 a ton in a recent auction in central Minnesota, when it would sell for $150 to $200 a ton in a more normal market.

With soybean meal — another key food for milk cows — also hovering at high prices, "dairy profit margins are almost nonexistent," Lunemann said.