By TIM HEARDEN
COTTONWOOD, Calif. -- Like many farmers, hay producers in northern and central California are hoping for a wet April as they await their first cuttings.
"If we get a rain in the next few days, we should be all right," said grower Ivar Amen, who owns a farm supply store here. "We've got to get some rain."
Producers hope for abundant yields this season to make up for a slight drop in acreage. California producers intend to harvest hay from 1.45 million acres, down 6 percent from last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's plantings report.
The anticipated decrease is partly due to some growers electing to take out stands to put in other seasonal crops such as fresh-market tomatoes, said Phil Bowles, a board member and past president of the California Alfalfa and Forage Association.
"I don't think there's been a huge shift of acreage one way or the other," said Bowles, a Los Banos, Calif., grower. "The economics of most of the other crops are pretty good if you've got water. Alfalfa has to hold its own acreage with other crops."
Prices for alfalfa and other hay are a bit softer than they've been in the last couple of years. Supreme alfalfa is averaging about $250 per ton in the San Joaquin Valley, compared to $265 a ton last summer and as much as $290 a ton in 2011, according to USDA hay reports.
Hay producers have also had some problems with weevils that have become resistant to some treatments, and unusual weather has seemed to spur the growth of groundsel, a ubiquitous winter annual weed, Bowles said.
Still, producers say they expect a decent crop if they can get a little more rainfall. The federal Climate Prediction Center has forecast better-than-average chances of precipitation for much of California early this month, but longer-range outlooks foresee a return to a dry pattern.
"It just depends on the weather," Bowles said. "It looks like we're probably going to get a slow start. Ordinarily we'd have a fair amount of hay on the ground right now, but the weather's a little unsettled. ... To that extent, it could either increase or decrease yield."
Hay is one of nearly a dozen field crops for which NASS issued plantings predictions based on a survey of more than 2,500 California farmers conducted the first two weeks of March. Among the others, according to the report:
* Land seeded to winter wheat is expected to total 610,000 acres, unchanged from last year, while acres seeded to Durum wheat will see a 36 percent drop to 90,000 acres.
* California growers expect to plant 560,000 acres of corn for all purposes this year, an 8 percent decrease from 2012.
* Rice growers intend to seed 550,000 acres, a 2 percent decrease from last year. Those include 490,000 acres of medium-grain varieties, a slight drop from 2012.
USDA NASS Prospective Plantings Report: http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/pspl0313.txt
California weekly hay report: http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/ml_gr311.txt