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Good times roll for Arizona alfalfa hay growers

The New York Giants come-from-behind, Herculean victory in Super Bowl XLII, played in Glendale, Ariz., is just one of many solid performing accomplishments in Arizona.

Arizona’s alfalfa industry stands tall on the elevated stage of Arizona agriculture, a $9.2 billion industry, with the coveted trophy of Arizona’s No. 1 crop.

In 2006, all hay production in Arizona was valued at $288 million — $265.6 million for alfalfa hay and $22.7 million for other hay. The average yield of 8.3 tons per acre was first in the nation followed by California grower yields of 6.8 tons per acre.

Arizona harvested alfalfa was grown on 250,000 acres producing 2.08 million tons. Other hay types covered 45,000 acres. Marketing year average prices were in the $128 per ton range.

Getting top alfalfa dollar

Skyrocketing grain prices have helped elevate alfalfa prices to record levels in 2007-2008 in the $180 to $200 range per ton in Yuma County, Ariz. for premium dairy hay. Dairies are looking at high-priced hay and working to best maximize the dollars, said Clyde Sharp who grows 650 acres of alfalfa at Lyreedale Farms, Roll, Ariz. He said dairymen and alfalfa growers realize quality deserves a premium and poor quality doesn’t.

“We’re starting to hear some dairies say, ‘If dairies are going to pay the high price, then we want the best hay available,’” Sharp said. “Some better dairies are willing to pay a premium for quality hay. If there’s anything good coming out of higher prices of commodities, that’s one of them.”

Partners Clyde and brother David sell premium spring cut hay by contract directly to a dairy in Stanfield, Ariz. Other cuttings are sold to McElhaney Cattle Company in Wellton, Ariz. The brothers also manage 800 alfalfa acres at the McElhaney operation.

“Receiving top dollar means every possible action is taken to produce the highest quality product,” Clyde Sharp said. “We’re starting to sort hay quality according to what the producer can grow and what the dairyman is willing to use.”

“Tell us what you want and we’ll produce it. Grain and cotton are based on quality — why can’t we market alfalfa the same way?” David Sharp asked. “It’s finally happening — alfalfa will be marketed similarly to cotton and wheat down the road. High dollars are the reason.”

The Sharp’s top alfalfa varieties include WL 711WF, WL 535HQ, WL 625HQ, and Pioneer 58N57. Seed is planted to best match the farm’s clay loam to sandy loam soil types.

Testing is an integral tool to keep track of hay quality. “We’re always trying to compare varieties so we can evaluate for the quality characteristics we’re looking for,” David Sharp said. “Alfalfa tissue analyses are conducted to determine how well it’s fed.”

Like a bird-watcher with close-up binoculars, Arizona dairies are focusing on relative food value — levels of acid and neutral detergent fibers and crude protein. Many dairies prefer 190 and above relative food value for milk cow hay. Anything below 180 is not milk cow hay quality, Clyde Sharp said.

The Sharps typically glean 10 to 11 alfalfa cuttings annually with a 12-ton yield per acre. The 13-ton milestone was procured in 2007. Hay is baled in large bales on the operation about 40 miles east of Yuma.

The Sharps have sold hay out of state. This spring the brothers simultaneously negotiated with the Stanfield dairy and a California dairy, but in the end inked the deal with the Stanfield farm.

In water use, alfalfa is grown on the Sharp’s low desert farm at 83 percent to 85 percent water efficiency, a level proven through University of Arizona (UA) testing. “You can’t get more efficient than that with how we flood irrigate. We’re trying to make every drop of water go as far as possible,” David Sharp said.

While increasing alfalfa hay prices in Arizona have achieved an all-time high, such a price trend often tends to increase acres in a given commodity. Yet Arizona acreage, like California, will likely hold at current levels or slightly increase.

“If there is a slight increase in 2008 alfalfa acreage in Yuma, which is expected, it will probably come at the expense of citrus acreage,” said Kurt Nolte, UA Cooperative Extension director, Yuma County, Ariz.

What’s the future for alfalfa demand by Arizona dairies? No new herds are coming online. Arizona has about 100 dairies and cow numbers per herd are up 5 percent, according to Frances Lechner, member relations manager with United Dairymen of Arizona, Tempe, Ariz., which has 89 dairy members. Production per cow is running several percent higher.

Lechner said dairy production costs are about $17 per hundredweight. Class I fluid milk prices are $22.39 (Dec.), $23.32 (Jan.), and about $22 (Feb.).

La Paz and Mohave counties

Heading north of Yuma on the Arizona side of the Colorado River is La Paz County where hay production covers about 60,000 acres. Production just to the north in neighboring Mohave County totals 6,000-8,000 acres.

Over the past 20 years, alfalfa acreage has doubled in La Paz including some cotton ground converted to alfalfa, according to UA area Extension Agent Eric Norton, La Paz and Mohave counties. La Paz farmers farmed about 12,000 acres of cotton last season, compared to 15,000 in 2006, he said.

“Alfalfa acreage will remain steady or increase slightly in 2008 in La Paz County,” Norton predicted. “We might see an increase in wheat acreage because of higher prices. Some seed dealers who offer contracting services have seen some increase in contracted wheat acres.” New wheat acreage has occurred at the expense of cotton.

Norton said more than half of La Paz County alfalfa hay is sold to California dairies and 30 percent to 40 percent is sold to Arizona dairies. Some hay is sold in Phoenix and Kingman, Ariz. for the horse market. Some Mohave County hay enters retail markets in the Las Vegas area. About 80 percent to 90 percent of the total hay sold in the counties is in small bales.

Several new dairies in La Paz County could lead to more hay retained locally. One dairy is in production with two more under construction. Crop production is migrating to meet the new need — shifting cotton and melon acres to alfalfa, corn silage, and sorghum, Norton said.

Water availability for alfalfa is a non-issue in La Paz’s Parker Valley, as the irrigated farm ground is owned by the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT). According to Norton, the CRIT has never taken its entire annual Colorado River water allotment. CRIT Farms includes about 12,000 acres and the remaining irrigated acres, about 70,000, are leased to other growers. About 80 percent of the county’s alfalfa production is grown on the CRIT reservation, he said.

Hay broker Wayne Gordon, owner of the Chino Hay Market, Parker, Ariz., purchases about 95 percent of his hay from Parker Valley growers. About half is sold to Arizona and California buyers — about 60 percent for the dairy market.

Record hay prices per ton in the area are about $180-$200 for dairy hay, $200 for horse hay in the barn, and $130-$160 for grassy hay, said Gordon who has 28 years in the business.

Gordon attributes record hay prices to three factors: 1) reduced feed in the West Coast area due to drought conditions; 2) increasing prices for crops like corn and elevated prices for other commodities; and 3) the lack of available hay.

Gordon expects hay acreage in the Parker Valley to remain about the same in 2008 to 5 percent higher. “Some of the cotton ground has gone into wheat,” Gordon said.

Phoenix area hay

Prices for high quality hay for dairy or retail are $160-$180 per ton, up $20-$30 from recent years, according to Tracy Johnson, mill manager for Lakin Cattle Company, Avondale, Ariz.

The operation includes 700 acres of alfalfa hay, 350 acres in Bermudagrass, 140 acres in oats, and several hundred acres of corn for silage. The operation no longer raises cattle. The farm sells some hay to dairies, and creates pellets at the on-farm mill for the horse market from alfalfa and the entire Bermudagrass production.

“Demand remains strong from dairies and the retail market,” said Johnson who serves as secretary of the Arizona Forage Producers Association. “Supply is driving the market. Prices are good and everyone is happy.”

Acreage yields are 8-9 cuttings annually. The first three cuttings — a green chop and two baled — go to a dairy while summer hay from June through August feeds the horse market. September and October cuttings are also bound for dairies.

Lakin Cattle Company markets all its alfalfa in-state. Baling into small bales is preferred. “Small bales are easier for us to handle. There’s less fire danger with small bales. In the retail market you’re not limited to where you can go with small bales.”

The operation located west of Phoenix has no plans to remove any alfalfa ground in favor of other crops in 2008. While urban encroachment in metropolitan Phoenix has paved over farm ground for residential and commercial development, the current housing downturn has slowed conversions to a snail’s pace.

“I’m very optimistic about Arizona’s alfalfa hay industry,” Johnson said. “There’s always a demand for good quality hay from dairies and retail markets.”

Water is not a concern for the farm located in the Salt River Valley. Water from wells and the Salt River Project meets the farm’s irrigation requirements.

Good management practices

Mike Ottman, UA Extension agronomist, said growers are doing a good job generating income and quality forage. Making sure established stands get enough water is critical, as well as attentiveness in the haying process to protect yield and quality.

“Don’t rake when the hay is too dry as leaves can be lost. Make sure the hay is dry enough so molding doesn’t occur in the bale,” Ottman said.

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