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Column: A season that can’t end too soon for many growers

The 2006 season has been called “a year to forget” by an industry expert who follows market trends, acreage, yields and other factors that impact alfalfa hay. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Oct. 1 yield estimate released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service shows seasonal alfalfa hay production at 6.7 tons per acre.

Last year’s figure was 6.9 tons per acre, and this year’s 6.7 ton per acre estimate is the lowest since 1998. It seems the cards were stacked against the prospect of another good season from the beginning. Heavy, prolonged rains and a wet spring took a toll on quality of first and second cuttings. Then in July, scorching heat and heavy worm pressures delivered more bad news.

At CAFA’s October Board meeting, a grower Board member noted that it didn’t take a seasoned agronomist to know the risks of irrigating with 105-degree water. With 20-20 hindsight, he wished he had sacrificed a cutting instead of trying to keep going in the intense heat that set temperature records. As he traveled around the San Joaquin Valley recently, he reported seeing several thousand acres of alfalfa fields that had pathetic looking stands.

In early October, production shortfalls were starting to firm up the market. But the other part of the market equation milk prices was still on the down side. Neither growers nor dairymen had much to be happy about in 2006 and hopefully, both industries will have a lot better news in 2007.

Who knows exactly what the next year holds, but a small El Nino is being forecast, primarily in the southern part of the state. One thing that is increasingly apparent, however, is the slow down in hay shipments into California. As mentioned in a previous column, Arizona in particular has been playing a smaller role in out-of-state shipments.

The main reasons cited are a growing dairy industry and more urbanization in central Arizona. At the same time, states like New Mexico and Idaho are also seeing significant growth in their dairy industries. Meanwhile, California is now home to 20 percent of the 9.1 million dairy cows in the United States.

If the trend of lower shipments from out-of-state continues, the state’s alfalfa growers will be hard pressed to fill the gap, especially if there’s a repeat of this season’s weather conditions. Within the next month or so, CAFA will get an update on market trends for 2007 and it will be interesting to see if more alfalfa acreage is being forecast for next year.

At the same time, the National Ag Statistics Service will release its December yield survey. The results will be featured in CAFA’s December newsletter, which analyzes the past season and the outlook for the first several month of the new season.

Another Reminder: The 2006 Alfalfa & Forage Conference is coming up in the not too distant future. The dates are Dec. 12-13, with a pre-conference tour on Dec. 11. The site, John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks, Nev., (just outside of Reno) always draws a large crowd. There’s a wealth of information to glean during the two-day event. And, CAFA’s Annual Breakfast Meeting will take place Dec. 13. For full details, visit the UC Davis Alfalfa Workgroup Web site,

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