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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’ biggest 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 2 to 3 percent from an anticipated six percent due to the poor weather.

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