Over the last several years the value of alfalfa in California has usually been pegged at between $800 million to as much as $1 billion annually. Given the challenges growers face in dealing with water availability and other issues, it's logical to ponder what the future holds for the state's largest acreage crop.

At the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., the USDA's Neal Martin recently gave several reasons for optimism, citing several positive trends that bode well for California growers. Not surprisingly, there were the usual caveats that surface whenever forage specialists examine the industry's future.

On the plus side, the dairy industry in western states doesn't show any signs of putting the brakes on a rapid growth rate that is being fueled by the constant increase in population. “The dairy-forage continuum is clearly the leading agricultural industry, exceeding $5 billion per year in the West,” said Martin, who is the director of the USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis. Martin cited some interesting statistics for California and other western states that demonstrate the growth rate in hay production as well as growth in the dairy industry.

California, for example, is nearing the 25 percent mark when it comes to the “total U.S. production” of alfalfa hay. A statistic that may surprise some people, however, is that California is not No. 1 in total alfalfa acreage in the 11 western states. In fact, the Golden State ranks third in total acreage, behind Montana and Idaho. The latter state is also experiencing a surge in dairy production. Idaho recently moved ahead of Minnesota and now ranks as the nation's fifth largest milk producing state. Currently, it's estimated that the 11 western states now account for 31 percent of the U.S. alfalfa acreage and approximately 40 percent of the total alfalfa production nationwide.

The continuing gains in the West in both the alfalfa and dairy industries should send a message that more federal funding for research should be allocated to the western region. The USDA-ARS has played a major role in promoting significant gains for Midwest producers since the Dairy Forage Research Center was opened in Wisconsin more than 20 years ago. It was a time when Midwest states like Wisconsin and Minnesota were riding high in terms of both alfalfa acreage and dairy production. Seven Midwest states still rank in the top 10 of alfalfa producing states, but California is now No. 1, while Idaho is at No. 5 with Montana in the ninth spot.

Nonetheless, ARS dairy forage research is still based in eastern states despite the growth of the forage and dairy industries in the West. By the time this column appears, California's research needs will have been heard at a 2-1/2 day ARS conference in Chicago that began on Nov. 30. UC Davis Forage Specialist, Dan Putnam, a CAFA board member, attended the conference. He was accompanied by CAFA board member and alfalfa grower Tom Ellis, who offered a producer's perspective.

California's forage growers and dairymen, of course, are facing a number of obstacles to sustained growth, with each group sharing water availability concerns. Hopefully, the ARS will begin to turn its attention to western states to help the forage and dairy industries continue to achieve sustained growth.