Spot rain showers continued to delay first-crop harvest for many alfalfa growers in central California last week. "We're off to a little bit of a rough start," says Rick Staas, CEO of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association, a cooperative with 250 members throughout the state's Central Valley. "We're seeing a little more hay on the ground each day. But overall we're probably about a month behind average. Now we're getting to the point where guys figure they just can't wait too much longer to get going and get those plants growing again."

The delay has all but wiped out the inventory of top-end dairy hay in the region, putting strong upward pressure on prices. Staas notes that hay the co-op brought in from Nevada and Oregon earlier this month to fill customer orders was priced at $325-345/ton delivered.

The first few loads of new crop coming off of Central Valley growers' fields have been bringing about $300/ton f.o.b. "If the weather remains unsettled (preliminary forecasts called for a chance of more rain this week), prices could stay up there for awhile," he says.

Even when the harvest gets going full force, prices may not back off by much. "It's going to be tough getting the tonnage. We had another very wet winter that didn't help the alfalfa fields. There were a lot of plants sitting in more water for a longer period than you would like to see," Staas says.

Other factors could also trim production and keep supplies tight. "We've been seeing more problems with stem nematode in some areas, and some of our growers have also been reporting heavy damage from gophers and voles. Both of those things have hurt a lot of stands."

The total hay acreage among co-op members is down 12% compared to that of a year ago, Staas also notes. While higher prices for cotton, corn and wheat drew some of that acreage away from hay, last year's poor hay prices also likely played a role. "It was a lousy year for many growers."

Continued instability in the dairy industry is another factor weighing on most growers' minds as the new season gets under way. "There's a lot of concern about payability on the part of dairy customers," he says. "Milk prices have gone up a bit in recent months, but feed prices have gone up at a faster pace. It's not even close. It will definitely affect the paying habits of some of our customers."

To contact Staas, call 209-835-1662 or email haygrower@caldsl.net.