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Water, dairies encroachment top 07 western forage challenges

The supply and quality of water will dominate southwest forage production in 2007, according to Dan Putnam, forage specialist with the University of California, Davis. Expanded dairy production in the West, continuing urban encroachment, and Roundup Ready alfalfa will add to the mix of issues impacting forage producers' bottom lines.

Putnam spoke on “Emerging 2007 Forage Issues in the Southwestern States” during the Western Alfalfa and Forage Conference in Reno, Nev. in mid-December. Attending the conference were growers from the 11 Western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

California issues

Water Supply — It's all about water — not enough, rarely too much, quality, who has the rights, who wants it, and all of this can change fairly quickly. Water problems exist in some areas of California but not in others and the issue moves around, said Putnam. Alfalfa is a strong competitor for water and land against higher dollar crops like almonds, pistachios, and wine grapes.

Water quality regulations — California Water Control Board policies have led to the development of watershed groups that are taxing farmer members to pay for water quality monitoring and mitigation issues. The alfalfa industry is under pressure to reduce the use or mitigate the off-site movement of organophosphate pesticides used for weevil control in the spring and worm control in the summer.

Genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa — Since it's '05 unveiling, Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa is heavily planted in California. Yet coexistence of RR technology with organic and export growers who produce for GE-sensitive markets is an issue, especially in several California counties where anti-GE measures have passed or been proposed. In the Imperial Valley, RR alfalfa planting restrictions are in effect.

Loss of market share — Dairy rations with reduced alfalfa is a growing trend. In 1980, California alfalfa growers produced about 40 pounds of alfalfa for each cow per day. The amount almost dropped in half in ‘05. The rapid growth of corn silage in dairy regions is one reason along with the increasing use of by-product feeds.

The relatively high cost of alfalfa hay versus other forages and feed, is an important factor, plus the need for manure management and the link to corn and small grain forage in the dairy regions. The issue is also related to forage quality measurement and definition, and the ability or inability of growers to explain alfalfa's unique benefits in dairy rations.

Reconsider rations

“Growers are pleased when prices of alfalfa hay move higher like in 2005,” Putnam said. “However, it forces dairy producers to reconsider rations seriously. Some dairymen look at forcing alfalfa out of the ration to a significant degree. This is something all alfalfa growers should be very concerned about.”

He said the spiraling price of corn took an unprecedented twist last fall when the price of corn increased during harvest. The reason was the strong demand for grain for ethanol plants.

“This squeezes dairy producers even more. It strengthens the value of forage products. Each of these feed products has a role in a cow's ration so you cannot completely negate the role or trade them off for another,” Putnam noted.

Hay quality testing — A major part of crop price is related to forage quality tests. Important to growers is the standardization of lab methods, sampling, and including additional testing in the hay marketing system. About one-third of alfalfa's value is dependent on quality-related measurement, understanding, and marketing.

Pest pressure — Summer Lepidoptera pests (worm complex) numbers were higher in '05 and ‘06. “I hope we don't repeat the terrible year in ‘06 with summer worms that were very severe in California.” The industry is wondering if the shift in pesticide types might have led to higher numbers.

“Many more producers are using pyrethroid insecticides now rather than organophosphates,” said Putnam. “This may have impacted the beneficial insects which have had a positive impact on (worm) populations. That's speculative and no one really knows for sure.”

Arizona issues

University of Arizona Forage Specialist Mike Ottman and Putnam weighed in on Arizona's forage issues.

Thanks to the growing dairy industry plus the demand from feedlots and horses, Arizona hay acreage sprouted from about 165,000 acres in 1995 to about 260,000 acres in 2006. The 2005 crop was valued at $268 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“Maricopa County had the largest alfalfa acreage in Arizona, but urbanization in the Phoenix area shifted alfalfa production to other counties,” Ottman said. “Alfalfa acreage has increased in Pinal and La Paz counties.”

Water costs have increased in central Arizona causing some growers to irrigate once instead of twice between cuttings especially on short cutting cycles.

As with California, alfalfa quality is a concern as Arizona dairies are demanding higher quality hay, but not necessarily willing to pay the associated costs. Some hay growers are disturbing the market by selling hay for less than it's worth.

Ottman said, “More of this is occurring from growers who use alfalfa as a rotation crop, versus those growers where alfalfa is their primary crop and they live and breathe alfalfa.”

The record-keeping provision of the Food Security Act required by the Food and Drug Administration says food sources must be traceable is a concern for forage growers. There are questions about how records should be kept.

“You have to come to the conclusion that hay is one of the lower risks of the food chain when it comes to food safety,” said Putnam. “There are other segments of the food chain of greater concern like beef, dairy, and fresh vegetables. These are more vulnerable.” Ottman added, “The new requirement only is required for hay handlers who transport hay. It does not apply to alfalfa growers unless they also transport hay.”

Overall, prices are strong and the future looks bright for Arizona hay and forage growers. The growth of the state's dairy industry is a boon for alfalfa growers, as well as horse-related hay sales.

Forage statistics

According to Putnam, the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada have 22 percent of the nation's alfalfa production, 27 percent of the nation's value, and 13.8 percent of the acres. Alfalfa represents about 80 percent of all forages grown in the southwest.

Alfalfa growers in all 11 western states produce 40.9 percent of the nation's production and 45 percent of the nation's alfalfa value. Alfalfa makes up 76 percent of all forages in the West.

Not including rangeland, California growers produce about two million acres of forages on irrigated cropland. In 2005, alfalfa was valued at over $1 billion. That makes alfalfa the state's largest acreage crop. While California is the largest grower of alfalfa hay in the U.S., the state is a net importer with most outside alfalfa hay coming from Nevada and Utah.

Dairy, the number one market for alfalfa and harvested forages, continues to expand across the southwestern states. Almost 30 percent of the milk produced in the nation comes from southwest dairies. The fastest growing western dairy states are New Mexico, Idaho, Arizona, and California.

In California's San Joaquin Valley, cotton ground is yielding to some alfalfa and forages, but new houses, orchards, and vineyards are also gaining ground in the Central Valley. Agriculture and growing cities are competing for acreage and water.

Note: Other forage specialists with input in this report include Tom Griggs and David Drake of Utah State University, Denise McWilliams of New Mexico State University, Joe Brummer of Colorado State University, and Willie Riggs of the University of Nevada.

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