It has been a roller coaster ride for California row crop growers the past few years, especially those in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

With cotton acreage disappearing faster than a gimme cap in a West Texas wind storm and processing tomatoes facing an uncertain future — wheat, corn and alfalfa moved to the head of list of possibilities.

Now that the shine is off the grain crops, alfalfa has moved to the No. 1 spot for many producers.

Los Banos, Calif. producer Danny Fialho caught the forage crop on the way up.

“We quit growing cotton three years ago and decided to go with alfalfa,” Fialho says. “It turned out to be a very good decision. I’m not sure how long it will stay that way, but for now it’s working.”

Fialho currently grows about 500 acres of alfalfa. He plans on sticking with it for maybe five years.

“It depends on stand (density) and price,” he says. “If the price is high and your stand is not too good, you can still do okay. Next year, if it looks like the price of feedstuffs is still high I’ll probably keep my alfalfa. If not, then I’ll work the ground and plant oats. Then when I take the oats out in the spring, I’ll probably come back with sudan.”

Melons or processing tomato rotations are other options, according to Fialho.

“Guys are willing to pay good money for tomatoes now, but still you can make more money on feed crops if the prices stay where they are right now,” he says. “Things have slowed up a little now, but oats were selling $175 a ton not too long ago and sudan for $160 a ton. If you can make that kind of money on those crops and double crop them, you can make good money. Out here we can do probably 3-4 tons of oats per acre and if we can get two cuttings on sudan, you can make pretty decent money.”

Fialho tries to watch bloom to time cuttings to preserve alfalfa hay quality.

“If we wait too long, the TDN goes down,” he says. However insect pressure can disrupt a cutting schedule. “If you wind up with worms and have to treat, there’s not a product anymore that we can spray and cut within 48 hours. Now it’s a seven-day pre-harvest interval. This was a buggy year in alfalfa. We had to spray almost every cutting for armyworm and aphid. You’ve got to treat it even if you’re ideally only three days away from cutting. If you don’t treat, the worms will stay there and eat all the new shoots and that’s your next cutting.”

Premonition is always 20-20 in hindsight, but in this case it seems like his decision to go entirely to hay has paid off. “We were starting into a drought period,” Fialho says. “I kind of had a hunch. There were a lot of almonds going in, but there seemed like there were a lot of dairies going in as well, so I thought alfalfa would be a good way to go.”

Fialho markets through three brokers. Right now it’s a seller’s market. The hay in his barn is currently sold. What may happen next year is anyone’s guess.

“It depends on the winter moisture. If we don’t have a lot of rain, people start getting nervous. The alfalfa growers down south have a harder time getting their water, so if there’s a drought they’re probably going to leave alfalfa.”

With $90-a-ton talk on the table for processing tomatoes in 2009, “In terms of TDN, to get top dollar, you have to have 56 and above,” he says. “In the middle of the summer, that drops pretty dramatically. If you drop from a 56 TDN to a 54 TDN, that’s $20 a ton you’re losing.”

Fialho has cut down on fertilizers due to higher costs this past year, but he hasn’t seen a significant impact on TDN or yields.

“In the spring we usually put out 11-50-20,” he says. “We used to apply 400 pounds. Now we’re down to half of that rate due to escalating fertilizer prices. In the spring of 2007 I paid $385 a ton for 11-50-20. This year I paid $1,135 a ton. However, I also started putting on a water-run soil inoculant. That seemed to boost my production. It helps the beneficial microbial population in the soils, releases minerals more readily for plant uptake, and allows the plant to absorb them more efficiently.”

In spite of very attractive alfalfa prices in the current market and a seeming abundance of dairies, water remains a big challenge for California growers. Fialho uses an average of 4-4.5 acre feet of water per season on flood-irrigated alfalfa.

He gets his water from the Central California Irrigation District (CCID) — an irrigation district arguably in one of the better supply positions in the state. However, there are no water guarantees anymore in California.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year or even beyond,” Fiahlo says. “Shasta is unbelievably low. Maybe I’m wrong planting alfalfa. Time will tell.”

“Hay is working for us right now,” he says. “However, it’s nice to know we have the option to go back to something like tomatoes.