Dairymen are feeding increasingly fewer pounds of alfalfa in the daily rations for their animals yet alfalfa acreage in California and Arizona is inching up to near record levels established four decades ago.

California 1.6 million acres of alfalfa represent the largest acreage crop in the state, and Arizona's 225,000 acres of alfalfa ranks No 2, close behind cotton in the Grand Canyon state.

The enigma is resolved with one look at dairy cow numbers in both states. There are simply hundreds of thousands of more dairy cows than there were just a decade ago and that is driving up alfalfa acreage and demand.

California, as the nation's No. 1 dairy state, now produces almost 20 percent of the nation's milk from 1.5 million milk cows. There are 400,000 more dairy cows in the state than just a decade ago, according to Extension Forage Specialist Dan Putnam of the University of California and Mike Ottman of the University of Arizona.

In the past decade, milk cows and replacement heifers in Arizona have increased from 118,000 to 173,000.

Ottman and Putnam told the recent Western Alfalfa and Forage Conference in Reno, Nev., that the “relentless expansion of the dairy industry” in not only California and Arizona but New Mexico as well over the past 20 years is “nothing but phenomenal and shows little signs of abating.”

Horses factor

This is not the only factor that has transformed alfalfa from a rotation crop to an important cash flow crop. Horses are another.

It is difficult to get an accurate count on the number of horses, but Ottman and Putnam estimate there could be as many as 1.2 million horses in both states (170,000 in Arizona and perhaps 1 million in California. They estimate as much as 20 percent of hay produced in both states is fed to horses.

Dairy industry growth and the horse market coupled with low prices for competing crops and even the loss of some crops like sugar beets sent hay acreage soaring in 2002. An estimated 15 to 20 percent more alfalfa was planted in California's Central Valley from 2001 to 2002, yet Putnam said the price crash many had predicted early in 2002 did not materialize.

There was definitely a softening of prices from the banner year of 2001 to 2002, but no free-fall.

“There was much more of a price penalty for lower quality hay categories, but high quality hay seemed to hold its own through most of the summer and through the fall,” noted Putnam.

With higher alfalfa prices, dairymen look for lower priced, alternative forages, like small grain and corn silage. Since the early 1970s, dairy cow daily alfalfa consumption has dropped by 50 percent.

Putnam and Ottman said this drop in marketing share is an important, emerging issue facing producers.

The pressure to produce higher quality hay is likely to intensify in the future, they say. Methods and approaches to measuring forage quality are likely to undergo several important changes in the near future.

Quality emphasis

“Alfalfa does have unique and important qualities,” said Putnam, “but alfalfa growers must be increasingly more sophisticated in their understanding of forage quality to assure that alfalfa remains a critical part of dairy rations and for other uses in the future.”

One route to improved quality may be through improved quality through technology.

Alfalfa will likely be the next major crop to venture in to biotechnology. While improved quality through biotechnology is possible, Roundup-resistant alfalfas likely will be the first major alfalfa biotechnology advancement with varieties commercially available in 2004. Although the technology is still being evaluated, Ottman and Putnam said “it is likely” interest would be high among producers and “significant acreage may follow.”

Irrigation water quantity and quality is a major issue with all California crops, but Putnam said alfalfa is particularly vulnerable because it is a high water user; it's perennial with little flexibility when water supplies are tight and its economic value is considered moderate compared to many specialty crops.

“And, lastly and perhaps more importantly alfalfa does not have the immediate recognition factor with urban dwellers and its products (milk, cheese, beef),” noted Putnam. Its attributes, like being a nitrogen fixer, soil protector and wildlife habitat provider, also are not readily recognized by the public.

‘Achilles heel’

Putnam said water availability and price is the “Achilles heel” of alfalfa in the Western states.

The emerging water quality issue facing agriculture will likely include alfalfa, even though it prevents soil erosion and pesticide use intensity if low, said Putnam.

There is a growing concern about the presence of organophosphates in surface water. Alfalfa has been implicated for treatment of alfalfa weevil and Egyptian Alfalfa weevil with these compounds, which have been found in surface water.

A second water quality concern with alfalfa is herbicide runoff from winter-dormant sprays in a few wells in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

“Water quality and water quantity are interrelated issues,” noted. Putnam. “One of the primary solutions to the problem is to prevent off-site movement of water. This of necessity requires improved irrigation management, which is a key aspect in improving water use efficiency and mitigation of water quality.”

“An important emerging issue with alfalfa is the perception of the public as a whole,” Putnam explained. “This includes both the value of alfalfa nutritionally and economically, but also in terms of non-economic values such as wildlife habitat, open spaces, soil conservation and aesthetic value.”

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com