Commodity market forecasts and acreage predictions often spring surprises. A recent example is the USDA's March 30 Prospective Plantings report.

Until it was issued, there was a strong case for a significant drop in alfalfa acreage. Some observers were predicting a decline of around 10 percent, a forecast that got more credibility in January. That's when the Imperial Irrigation District's report showed that Imperial Valley alfalfa acreage was down by 12 percent, a drop of nearly 19,000 acres.

When the March USDA report came out, California's “all hay” acreage was forecast at 1.53 million acres, only 3 percent lower than 2006.

We won't have a breakout of alfalfa acreage versus. other types of hay until the USDA's June 29 report. In the meantime, there's still plenty of speculation but it doesn't look like a significant decline is in store.

A seed company rep in the San Joaquin Valley told us last month that he recently sold seed that was being planted in early April. Not surprisingly, he had a different view of alfalfa acreage compared to those who had forecast a sizeable drop.

He attributed the late planting to a better outlook for the dairy industry due to the CWT Dairy Herd Retirement program launched in March. Sources tell us that it looks like milk prices will be moving higher and put the dairy industry into the black again after a dismal year in 2006.

Except for irrigation water supplies, alfalfa growers have several factors on their side for 2007.

Hay supplies in the West have been low and it doesn't appear that other states will be shipping unusually large quantities of alfalfa into California. Shipments were down considerably the first two months of the year.

Factors such as water issues, acreage and dairy industry growth in other western states should keep out-of-state shipments from putting significant downward pressure on the California hay market in the foreseeable future.

Worth a look

It's not unusual for innovative growers to solve problems and launch a second business. We've seen it happen recently with computer programs like “HayManager.”

It was designed by growers and the Siskiyou County company, Ag-Biz Solutions, is run by Tara Porterfield, a fifth generation rancher. She and her husband Chet Porterfield grow alfalfa and operate a cattle ranch near Macdoel. They were at the Western Alfalfa & Forage Conference last December, where we learned of the new venture.

Tara has worked as an ag loan officer, and a bookkeeper for other growers. It's not surprising she focused on a program that, among other things, keeps track of complete field records, planting, fertilizer, herbicides, power bills, production history, hay inventory, and comprehensive sales data. It's designed for growers regardless of where they farm.

The company claims that HayManager is user-friendly and offers “far less effort than conventional record keeping systems.”

But, something caught our attention — “unlimited tech support” for three months for the basic program, and 12 months for the deluxe program. If you've struggled with a new computer program, the promise of tech support has value. You can take a test drive by visiting the company's Web site at www.haymanager.com. The company also has a Crop Manager program for non-baled crops.