Combine the value of California’s alfalfa and forage industry with the state’s dairy industry -- the largest in the nation — and you get a total figure estimated to be approximately $6 billion. The two industries are closely linked, of course, with around 80 percent of California’s alfalfa production being purchased by dairymen.

Those statistics were cited in a letter that CAFA sent in February to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Washington, D.C. The letter was written when CAFA’s Board of Directors learned that an alfalfa position had opened up due to a retirement at the ARS facility in Beltsville, Md. The letter requested that the open position be redirected to UC Davis to help address water quality and irrigation management research that would serve California and other western states.

The population shift to western states and the jump in dairy production is a trend that will obviously continue and put more pressure on water issues that challenge alfalfa and forage production and also impact the dairy industry. In 1970 western dairying accounted for only 20 percent of the nation’s milk supply, a figure that jumped to 40 percent in 2000. When it comes to ARS dairy forage research in the West, however, there’s a void that needs to be filled to help solve pressing issues unique to California and other western states.

The ARS established a major presence in Wisconsin some 30 years ago when it opened the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center near Madison. It’s a cooperative effort between the USDA, the University of Wisconsin and other land grant colleges.

According to the Dairy Forage Research Center’s Web site, "It coordinates multidisciplinary research involving engineers, microbiologists, chemists and plant and animal scientists at locations in five states. The research is directed toward increasing yields and quality of forage grown and harvested, reducing losses associated with harvesting, storage and feeding, and maximizing use of forage nutrients by the dairy cow for milk production." The facility has "2.5 acres of buildings, three types of cow barns, calf and heifer housing, a milking center, research and hospital areas and a feed center flanked by a dozen silos."

What’s obviously missing from that description on the ARS Web site is the ability to conduct research directed to irrigated agriculture and related issues unique to California and other western states. CAFA’s letter to the ARS was accompanied by a "position paper" that summarized reasons for establishing a presence in California that would also serve other western states. It was pointed out that: "Methods are badly needed for growers to adjust to lower supplies, and improve water-use efficiency, while still maintaining forage production and profitability. Techniques for better irrigation methods, scheduling, monitoring, or equipment, as well as for deficit irrigation for drought or temporary economic water transfers are needed."

At some point in the future there will hopefully be a Dairy Forage Research Center in California that serves the West and is similar to the ARS facility in Wisconsin. In the meantime, however, the first step is to convince the powers that be at ARS to establish an alfalfa research position that focuses on irrigated land.