Cold and wet conditions will keep alfalfa yields down and hay prices up in Idaho and California, say forage experts.

Fewer growing degree days and 25 days of frost, starting in March, slowed alfalfa growth in Idaho, says Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho Extension forage specialist.

"I predict the hay crop will be about 1.5 tons/acre short of average, or yield will be about 85% of average, even if the weather returns to normal temperatures," he says. "If producers wait for more yield – which I recommend – we will probably reduce number of cuts by one."

Shewmaker harvested variety trial plots on May 25 – not because the alfalfa needed it, but to compare to previous years' data harvested that same date. "It is mostly in bud stage," he says of the 1.5 tons/acre dry matter preliminary yields with quality predicted at 26-28% ADF. "This is less than half of the seven-year, first-cutting yield for established stands at 3.3 tons/acre for harvests at Kimberly during the third to fourth week of May."

As far as he knows, no one's cut alfalfa yet in the Intermountain area of California, which has had rain and cool weather – although minimum temperatures have not been as cold as last year's, says Steve Orloff, Siskiyou County farm advisor. "If it is any consolation, what I have observed over the years is that, if first crop is real low-yielding, second cutting is usually somewhat better than normal but usually not enough to fully compensate for the poor yield on first cutting."

It's the same story in many of Central California's hay-growing regions, where "very cool, even cold" conditions have slowed hay growth, driving up prices, says Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis Extension forage specialist.

"The low yields, combined with the low acreage (planted to alfalfa), have continued to keep hay prices at near-record-high levels statewide," Putnam says.

Although higher prices would normally bring an alfalfa acreage increase by fall, wheat, cotton, corn and other crops continue to be attractive, he adds. "It's not clear at this point whether that will occur. Water supplies are another wild card."

Putnam estimates a yield reduction of 1 ton/acre in many parts of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys this year.