If your crystal ball forecast a 10 percent drop in California alfalfa acreage in 2007, you don't need to recalibrate it. It's working just fine according to acreage figures in the June 29 report released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
The NASS estimate pegged California alfalfa acreage at 10 percent lower than last year. For the first time in 10 years, California growers are below the one million acre mark at 950,000 acres. It wasn't necessarily the biggest surprise, however, as other hay took a big jump that hadn't been expected by some seasoned observers. As a result, all hay was forecast at 1,570,000 acres, or 10,000 acres below 2006.
Last year, when industry members began looking at the prospects for 2007, some sources were predicting a 10 percent drop for alfalfa. One of the reasons cited was a larger number of crop options with a good profit potential. That seemed to be a sound estimate when the Imperial Irrigation District's January report showed that Imperial Valley durum wheat was up by 73 percent or 12,000 more acres than January 2006. At the same time, alfalfa took a 12 percent drop, a loss of 19,000 acres compared to January of last year.
However, the NASS Planting Intentions Report released on March 30 seemed to indicate that the 10 percent estimate being kicked around didn't add up. The March report, which lumps all hay together and doesn't break out alfalfa, was forecasting 3 percent fewer hay acres for 2007. A 3 percent decline was a smaller figure than some experienced observers had expected and the 10 percent decline for alfalfa was being questioned.
In April, a seed company source reported a late season surge in alfalfa plantings in the San Joaquin Valley. The surge was attributed to growers who decided to jump in because they were seeing the dairy industry finally beginning to rebound. The company source was convinced that the June report would likely show little or no reduction in statewide alfalfa acreage.
To no one's surprise, corn and wheat acreage soared compared to last year — by 73 percent and 23 percent respectively — and obviously cut into alfalfa plantings. But there was a major surprise when it came to all other hay, which took a 90,000 acre jump over last year. Since other hay isn't broken out by acreage, the June 30 NASS report leaves some room for speculation.
However, one development that blindsided some industry observers was an unexpected large increase in Sudangrass plantings that dairymen took advantage of as alfalfa prices hit record or near-record levels. For example, as reported in the July issue of CAFA News, Fair quality hay delivered to Tulare was averaging around $179 a ton in mid to late June. Even wheat straw hit a record high of $80 to $95 per ton.
NASS will release the season's first yield survey for alfalfa and other hay in August. Given tight irrigation water allotments the yield picture will more than likely be impacted, even though Mother Nature has cooperated so far this year. A number of other Western states are in the same boat and there's little doubt that alfalfa hay supplies will continue to be tight for the foreseeable future.