Take a strong hay market like 2004, add the prospect of a repeat in 2005, and most people in the industry would expect this year's alfalfa acreage to at least hold steady. But things don't always turn out the way you expect. The USDA's June Harvest Intentions report no doubt came as a surprise to many, with California alfalfa acreage forecast at 1,020,000 acres, a 30,000-acre drop from last year.
The early winter and wet weather well into spring is obviously one reason why alfalfa acreage took an unexpected nosedive. But there are other reasons that likely contributed to the decline, such as other profitable crop options and concerns over water availability.
It's difficult to determine how much of a role different factors have played. But one that may have been significant is the lingering effects of the 2002 hay market. It was the year that California alfalfa acreage hit a high mark of 1,160,000 acres and subsequently put the hay market in a funk that coincided with tough times in the dairy industry.
Last year's turnaround in the dairy industry and a continuing drop in alfalfa acreage over the last three years should signal a busy planting season later this year. Even if there's a larger than expected increase, it's likely that demand for high-test hay will continue to challenge the ability of California growers to keep pace with the state's dairy industry.
In the July issue of CAFA News, Seth Hoyt of the USDA's National Ag Statistics Service in California provided an in-depth market analysis for CAFA members. Some statistics that stood out included a 120,000 head increase in dairy cow numbers since May 2002. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that 1,020,000 or even 1,030,000 alfalfa hay acres in California cannot service the needs of 1,754,000 dairy cows, particularly on high quality alfalfa hay,” Hoyt wrote. “This doesn't include alfalfa used for dairy heifers, the horse market, and a smaller amount for the beef cattle/sheep industries and export markets,” he added.
In his July 2 column, Harry Cline wrote about the “radical anti-biotech element,” something we can now relate to. A call came into CAFA from southern California that began with the caller wanting to contact a UC farm advisor, who by the way had evaluated Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Initially, it was difficult to figure out what the caller was up to, since he rambled on about several subjects. Eventually, he zeroed in on genetically engineered crops before handing the phone to his sidekick. He sounded highly agitated as he ran through a long list of the evils of GE crops that included just about everything except global warming. That topic might have come up had we not cut the call short. The caller's frame of reference was an article written by someone in India alleging massive problems with Bt corn and cotton. The longer he talked, the more it became evident that he didn't have a clue.
In his July column, Harry noted that, “My e-mail supply from the radicals has dried up….” Next time we get a call from the “radicals” we'll pass them on to Harry. Knowing Harry, we suspect he's having a ball battling with the people who still think the world is flat. Give ‘em hell Harry!