Until this year the end of March was always an important time for us to see what the USDA’s Prospective Plantings report was forecasting for alfalfa and other forages. Unlike the June report, the March report lumps alfalfa and all other hays together, so it does leave room for speculation as to whether alfalfa acreage has increased or decreased.

In most years we’ve had a high level of interest in the March forecast and what it might mean for the hay market for the rest of the season. When the report was issued it was also interesting to see who had made the best estimate as to whether alfalfa acreage would increase, decrease or stay at about the same level.

Last year when water availability and high prices for other commodities loomed large, some industry analysts we talked to were generally looking at either a slight decrease in acreage or about the same amount as the previous year. This year, of course, there were no guesstimates or even the slightest chance that alfalfa acreage would increase or even hold steady. We didn’t even look at the March 31 report until mid-April because there was no suspense as in prior years when a range of acreage figures were being thrown around.

In case you haven’t seen the stats, the March report for California forecasts 1.47 million acres for all hays in 2009, down 50,000 acres from last year and 100,000 acres below 2007. Forecasts for most other Western states were generally at about the same level as 2008. The forecast for Idaho was 6 percent above last year, and 4 percent higher for Washington state.

The California acreage forecast is no surprise given the few drops of developed water that will be allocated to agriculture. The big question mark, of course, is how low will production levels go? It’s obvious that they will take a big drop with growers being forced to limit the number of cuttings.

If there’s anything that can be called a bright spot at this point, it’s feedback we recently received from a source who passed on information from two banks that are among the largest in California. Both banks were projecting a much needed turnaround for the dairy industry beginning in late summer.

In the meantime, the California Legislature is churning out water bond proposals. Sounds promising until you look at the statistics that were compiled in the April edition of SAS, Strategies & Perspective. According to the author Susan A. Sutton, “Californians have voted for 21 water bonds totaling $23.4 billion” since 1970. It’s a staggering number, but where’s the new water that should have been developed to deal with a prolonged drought?

Drought management

Here’s another reminder that several University of California information sources for drought management are available on the Web.

A good starting point is the UC Drought Management Web site at http://ucmanagedrought.ucdavis.edu. The site contains in-depth information for alfalfa, as well as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and stone fruits. The site contains Crop Irrigation Strategies and Irrigation Scheduling sections. A new section, Improving Irrigation Systems will be added soon.

If you’re considering a tailwater return system, ANR publication 8225 is available at http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/SoilWaterIrrigation/8225.aspx.