Weed-Free Program may impact overall hay market On the surface, California's Weed-Free Forage Program only affects a small percentage of growers. However, there are long-term implications that could impact a much larger number of alfalfa and forage producers when the program is fully implemented and enforced in 2004.

The effort to certify and identify weed-free forage - hay, straw and mulch - is designed to curb the spread of noxious weeds, primarily on land controlled by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Under California guidelines, county agricultural commissioners offices are responsible for inspecting fields that growers want to have certified. Forage that contains noxious weeds may still receive a weed-free certificate if it doesn't contain live roots, rhizomes, stolons, seeds or other propagative plant parts.

The California Alfalfa and Forage Association is concerned that the program will spill over to a larger market and has been monitoring the situation. Besides market impact, concerns center around the question of how serious a source of contamination hay presents to the spread of noxious weeds, says CAFA chairman Tom Ellis, an alfalfa grower from Grimes. Factors such as vehicles traveling in and out of areas and land management policies of federal agencies likely pose a much greater threat than the small amount of introduced forage.

Hay entering federal property is probably less than 500 tons per year, notes Ellis. But, including mulch or straw under the forage umbrella brings CalTrans into the picture and affects a bigger market. The agency uses large amounts of straw as mulch and will likely require weed-free certification.

Another concern is the potential impact on low-grade hay markets. Two CAFA grower members have pointed out that lower grades of hay may not pass certification by cow-calf operations on state lands and dairies at the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Hit in pocketbook Losing the low-grade market would hit the producer and feeder in the pocketbook. Ellis also observes that all hay producers have some weed problems in seedling fields and losing the off-grade market would be costly.

Demand for weed-free hay could spill over to state agencies, foundations or other landowners influenced by environmental interests. "Exporters could also latch on to the concept of certified weed-free hay, making certification a requirement for hay exported to the Far East," says the CAFA chairman. Some producers may try to cash in by promoting weed-free hay, he adds. "Thus, what began as a very minor project to protect federal land may have some influence on the way hay is perceived by buyers and on the behavior of markets."

In the near term, straw markets have the greatest potential to be impacted. But, inspecting fields may be "problematic" since most straw is harvested within a narrow time frame. Depending on supply and demand, a producer could receive a premium for weed-free straw or hay, but there's no guarantee. Montana, for example, has had a weed-free program for 20 years. According to Ellis, an official in that state reports that the "jury is still out" on whether growers can get a premium that covers all costs involved with growing and delivering a weed-free product.