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Prices soar as drought stifles hay production

Overall hay yields in California are expected to be down by more than 20 percent this year as the drought diminishes growers' ability to irrigate. The anticipated shortage is pushing hay prices higher.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on April 15, 2014 10:59AM

Alfalfa hay is stacked in a barn at the California State University-Chico farm. Hay producers in California are in the midst of their first cuttings.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Alfalfa hay is stacked in a barn at the California State University-Chico farm. Hay producers in California are in the midst of their first cuttings.

Capital Press

ANDERSON, Calif. — Hay producers report a decent crop as they take their first cuttings of 2014, but the drought is expected to take its toll on overall yields.

With some growers expected to stop their production sooner this year as water runs out, overall production could dip to more than 20 percent below an average year, said Dan Putnam, a University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in Davis.

The anticipated shortage already has hay prices pushing higher. Supreme alfalfa costs as much as $340 a ton in the central San Joaquin Valley, up from an average of $240 a ton just last fall, according to USDA hay reports.

Hay of all types is in very short supply, said Marsha Campbell Mathews, a UCCE crop advisor in Modesto.

"It's all spoken for and you just can't find it," she said.

The market's reaction to what is expected to be a difficult summer comes as alfalfa fields have progressed well, with some growers even commencing with a second cutting, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento.

Ivar Amen, who grows grass and alfalfa for hay in fields near his farm supply store here, said he's about a week away from producing his first bales of hay for the year.

"It's growing," he said. "There's guys starting to cut here in the valley now."

Amen and other growers have characterized rising hay prices as a mixed blessing at best, as it causes producers to lose customers.

"It becomes a point where people can't afford it anymore," Amen said. "What happens when you get rid of customers is pretty quickly you have a product that nobody needs."

Hay yields will obviously depend on a grower's access to water, Putnam said, although some fields were affected by a cold snap this winter as growers didn't have the water to irrigate.

"I think we're going to see a lot more difficulty as the summer goes on," Putnam said. "We've recommended and a lot of growers have decided to produce first or second cuttings, but they may not be able to irrigate through the summer. Quite a few farmers don't have any allocation of surface water, so they're going to have to cut back any irrigation of alfalfa or move that water to other crops."

For Amen's part, his fields are irrigated with well water, so he doesn't expected to be affected as much by the drought, he said.

California has already seen a decrease in hay acreage as producers have switched to other crops, including orchards, whose expansion has been "nothing short of phenomenal," Putnam said.

The Golden State's producers harvested hay from 1.45 million acres in 2013, down 6 percent from the previous year, according to a NASS plantings report.

• Among other California field crops, according to NASS:

Wheat continued to head out last week, with roughly three-quarters of the crop headed by the week's end. Three-quarters of the crop was rated good to excellent.

• Cotton planting has proceeded quickly, bolstered by ideal conditions in the southern Central Valley. Corn has also been planted throughout the state.

• Rice producers are preparing their ground for planting.


USDA California weekly hay report: http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/ml_gr311.txt


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