California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed a statewide drought after receiving lower snow-pack estimates during a dry spring. That will mean higher alfalfa prices and self-imposed or enforced dry-downs of alfalfa fields in a state with limited hay supplies and minimal new alfalfa plantings, says Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis extension forage specialist.

“We really haven’t had much rain at all from February until now. And then, of course, it won’t rain from now until November. So we’re done for the year; this is all the water that we have,” he says. Some areas have had to cut water usage to 30-50% of normal allocations.

Hardest hit: San Joaquin Valley growers, Putnam says. “One of the reasons for the shortages of water in the San Joaquin Valley is that pumping is reduced significantly from the Delta into the California Aqueduct.” The aqueduct is a 444-mile artificial river carrying water from northern to southern Central Valley.

“They’re curtailing the pumping because of wildlife habitat issues – the delta smelt and other endangered species,” Putnam says. “The Endangered Species Act is one of the things that really affects agriculture; it’s not only the supply of water and lack of significant or good rainfall.”

The price of alfalfa has increased significantly, and may continue to increase, he adds, in the No. 1 dairy state where prices have been at a record-breaking $200/ton or more. Last week, supreme alfalfa hay was as high as $265/ton in the Turlock area, according to USDA. “But another factor,” Putnam says, “is we have competitive crops taking acreage that would normally be put into alfalfa. Particularly wheat, because wheat doesn’t require the commitment of irrigation that alfalfa does. It’s basically being harvested now, and they just have to do spring irrigations. With alfalfa you have to irrigate it all summer long.”

It’s ironic that, with record-level hay prices, there were few new alfalfa plantings last fall, he says. Many growers he’s talked with are also waiting for Roundup Ready alfalfa to again become deregulated. (For an update on the biotech crop, which is now going through an environmental impact statement process, watch for eHay Weekly’s next issue, June 17). “Maybe it’s partly that they have other options they can plant now, like wheat,” Putnam surmises. “But some growers are holding off, hoping that this technology is approved for planting this fall or next spring."

The other dynamic affecting California’s hay supply is its millions of acres of permanent crops – orchards and vineyards, Putnam says. “If you’ve invested $10,000/acre in an orchard, you’re going to make sure it gets watered. Some of the other options that you’re looking at are not going to win out and you might make a decision to dry down an alfalfa field,” Putnam says.

It's not certain how many acres will be planted to alfalfa this fall, he says. “Growers have to look ahead, not only in terms of what’s happening this year, but what might happen the next year and the year after.”

Schwarzenegger has asked the state Department of Water Resources to help speed water transfers to areas with the worst shortages, to assist local water districts with conservation efforts and to help farmers suffering drought-related losses. He’s proposed a $12 billion bond to fund delta, river and groundwater improvements, conservation and recycling efforts and reservoirs.