Growers, Hay Groups Offer Optimism

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It’s been a rough ride for many forage growers and livestock producers the past few years. Hay prices have hit all-time highs, supply has been at or near rock bottom, and the weather has dealt many blows across the country. California, Nevada and Idaho growers are dealing with drought now while Midwesterners are playing catch-up after 1.5 million acres of alfalfa and grasses winterkilled last year.

Even so, there’s an optimism that growers and other forage folk radiate as they ask questions, offer advice and listen to others during this year’s round of winter meetings. And there’s finally good news about forages, funding and the future.

First of all, through years of effort by the forage industry and especially the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA), there are finally some federal dollars – $1.35 million – specified for forage-related research in the recently approved budget.

Also, through NAFA’s efforts, the federal government is showing interest in developing a forage crop insurance plan that growers will actually find practical.

Another bright spot: There’s movement to fill a critical position, that of director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center. Applicants have been identified and, by the time this issue comes out, there could be a hire and, likely, a new direction for this vital entity that performs planting, harvesting and feeding trials of all types of forages.

At the same time, there’s a new spirit of cooperation among forage groups that people, including Ray Smith, newly elected president of the American Forage & Grassland Council (AFGC), would like to see extended to state and national livestock groups. Smith, at the group’s annual conference, told me he was looking forward to working with NAFA, the National Hay Association (NHA), cattlemen groups and others.

AFGC’s opening session, in early January, was a good start. Besides retiring AFGC president Chad Hale, NAFA’s president, Beth Nelson, and Larry Jones, NHA president, talked of how their organizations could work with each other. Nelson talked of NAFA endeavors, mentioned earlier, and welcomed feedback and suggestions on the group’s crop insurance developments.

Jones suggested other issues that the forage groups could tackle. Water was one of them. “A lot of hay production is going to move east because of water issues,” he told attendees.

Another concern he feels should be addressed: the reduced number of forage acres and people to farm them. “Our younger folks are going more to row crops because of the labor and hard work required with haying,” he said.

Hale believes the forage industry needs to tell its story better. “In this world, everyone thinks about dollars. So how many dollars are we talking about in the forage industry? If we’re talking about sales generated for beef, sales for milk and direct-marketed hay, it’s over $100 billion that comes from forage. But how many beef producers and dairy producers, if we ask them, would identify themselves as forage farmers? We’ve got to correct that. Forage can be taken for granted.”

He’s right. More of us need to “talk up” and explain what forages are, whether that’s face to face or by making use of blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other means. We need to stay educated about the crops, not just on how to produce or market them, but also on how to defend them. When a 2012 Wall Street Journal opinion piece decried the exporting of Western alfalfa and the water it takes to produce it, Dan Putnam, University of California Extension forage specialist, quickly showed support for the crop in his blog, “Is Shipping Water To China In Alfalfa Hay Immoral?”.

He’s continuing his fight in a recent National Geographic article, along with Dave Sharp, Yuma County, AZ, alfalfa grower. Called “Exporting the Colorado River to Asia, Through Hay,” the article explores Western water use and rights and the concept of a “water market.” Nice job, Dan and Dave.

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