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California heat, dairy losses dampening state’s alfalfa industry

This summer’s excessive 110-115 degree heat spell scalded some alfalfa being irrigated, but the biggest impact to the Western alfalfa market was the blow the heat had on forage growers’ largest market, dairies. Dairymen lost an estimated 16,500 cows to heat and milk production dropped off from the surviving animals. Death losses were higher in milking cows than dry cows.

“Dairies are losing money and dairy cows are the largest users of alfalfa,” said Seth Hoyt, senior agricultural economist with the California office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. “Dairy farmers are resisting higher prices for alfalfa because of losses on milk.” Milk prices are at the lowest level since 2003. The lack of profitability in the dairy industry is causing dairies to buy short-term supplies of alfalfa hay for 30 to 45 days instead of the normal four to five months or longer, he stated.

The price impact on dry cow hay from the heat may not be as much as one might think due to lower alfalfa hay yields than a year ago, said Hoyt. Over the heated 10-day period, alfalfa hay consumption was down so it may have some price impact. The downward price pressure is not as severe in the South Desert compared to the Central Valley due to a sharp drop in shipments of dry cow alfalfa hay from Arizona to southern California dairies.

University of California at Davis Cooperative Extension Agronomist Dan Putnam said prices of dry cow hay and dairy hay have been going down, primarily due to the dairies’ strained financial status and poorer growing conditions.

Putnam said growing good alfalfa has been challenging all year. “It’s been hard for farmers to grow high-quality hay in the spring through July,” he noted. “Under hot temperatures, the evaporative demand exceeds the plant’s ability to cool itself. Plants are stressed at extremely high temperatures. Some will flower earlier.” Alfalfa is fairly heat tolerant but there is a limit, Putnam said. He pointed to reports of scalding (the death of alfalfa plants) when alfalfa is irrigated during the day and accompanied by record setting temperatures.

Putnam also said this past spring’s wet weather was another stunting culprit. Through most of the Central Valley where 60 percent of California’s alfalfa is grown, heavy spring rain flooded fields in April and May,” said the alfalfa/forage specialist. “We lost some stands and some were weakened. In July the record breaking hot temperatures added insult to injury and caused considerable plant stress.” There has also been significant summer pest pressure in July and August, primarily alfalfa caterpillars and the armyworm complex.

Problems to date with wet spring weather and high summer heat have reduced yields particularly for high quality dairy hay. Overall statewide production will likely go up only two to three percent from an anticipated six percent due to the poor weather.

Richard Stass, president and chief executive officer of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association in Tracy, Calif., predicted one-third to one-half of the fourth cutting would be lost and about the loss is expected for the fifth cutting. The reasons include the heat and armyworm pressures. The hot weather has shut the plants down, he said.

“Alfalfa quality is mediocre. Dry cow hay has fallen $25 per ton and dairy cow hay is $15 to $20 less compared to prices from the same time last year.” The reason is the price of milk. “We’ll see marginal fields left in from last year coming out.” A reduction in hay acreage is likely as growers see more profit potential converting alfalfa acreage to cotton, tomatoes, wheat and some corn,” he said

His advice to growers – put hay in the barns for winter sales as the winter hay market should be good. He called 2006 a ‘price-taking’ year compared to 2005’s ‘price-maker.’ The hay association represents about 225 to 250 growers from Firebaugh to Woodland, Calif. with 50,000 acres in production yielding about 300,000 tons annually.

Arizona Alfalfa Update

Some Arizona cotton ground has yielded to alfalfa, and alfalfa acreage has shifted from Central Arizona to the western counties.

“Some growers have faced wet growing conditions during the summer monsoon (rainy) season,” said Mike Ottman, extension forage and grain specialist with the University of Arizona. “Summer rains are not good for making hay.” In addition, treehoppers are damaging some alfalfa.

The Grand Canyon State has about 240,000 acres of alfalfa with a market sale value of about $230 million, Ottman noted. With the many dairies going in, alfalfa and other forages are becoming even more important. Acreage is expanding but moving to the state’s west side. Some production has shifted away from the previously number-one-ranked alfalfa county, Maricopa in the central part of the state, to the western-most counties of La Paz and Yuma along the Colorado River.

La Paz is now the state’s leading producer with about 25 percent of the alfalfa crop. Maricopa County’s decline in alfalfa production in part is due to urban sprawl. The county now claims about 3.5 million residents. In addition, the agricultural heritage of Pinal County, located just south of Maricopa, most recently called cotton king. Alfalfa now has a growing dominance.

One of the largest hay brokers in Arizona is Southwest Farm Services based in Phoenix. Owner Mike Perez, who buys hay from 250 to 300 growers, said Arizona is losing 100 acres of farmland per day. His fleet of 30 trucks moves hay to various destinations including drought-stricken Texas and New Mexico.

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