Leading alfalfa growers in Idaho are claiming numbers related to the state’s 2009 alfalfa crop in the latest USDA Crop Production report missed the mark. The Aug. 12 report, compiled by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), predicts that alfalfa production in the state will be 5% higher than it was in 2008. NASS also forecast state alfalfa yields will average a record 4.6 tons/acre in 2009.

“The numbers don’t add up,” says Don Hale, hay grower from Blackfoot and president of the Idaho Hay And Forage Association. “I just don’t see the hay anywhere that they’re claiming is out there.”

Hale notes that an usually wet late May-early June forced many growers to delay first-crop harvest. Depending on where they were located in the state, some had just cut hay when the rains started. “That hay got rained on for 30 days. It turned black and rotted in the field. Those delays resulted in a lost crop. Where we would normally get four cuttings, we will only get three. The possible increase in yields on first cut will not make up for the lost crop.”

In other areas, growers put off harvesting until after the long rainy spell ended. Net result: They ended up harvesting when the hay was way overmature. Those growers may have had higher-than-normal yields, says Hale, but the hay was feeder hay and not the kind of supreme-quality alfalfa hay typically produced by Idaho growers for the dairy market. “In that sense, the USDA numbers are misleading,” he says.

Hale also isn’t so sure about NASS claims that alfalfa acreage in the state has increased by 10,000 acres this year. “From everybody we talk to, we’ve been hearing that there was some new hay ground going into production. But there was a lot of hay ground coming out of production to accommodate normal crop rotations, too.”

Mike Larson, who grows alfalfa on 3,200 acres near Buhl in the south-central part of the state, also disputes the Aug. 12 numbers. “Whoever put this together doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Larson. “There’s no basis for what’s being reported.”

Larson believes a major shortcoming of the report is that it attempts to predict yields for the entire year at a time when a big chunk of the growing season still lies ahead. “How can you tell me what tonnage is going to be when we’re only half way through the season? Nobody knows what’s going to happen this fall. We could get an early fall and early frost. All kinds of things could happen.”

As much as anything else, Larson says, phone calls he’s getting from dairy customers have him convinced the NASS numbers aren’t accurate. “We’re still getting a lot of calls from people looking to buy hay,” he says. “That tells me there’s a shortage. If all this hay USDA says is out there really existed, the phone wouldn’t be ringing.”

Hale and Larson say they’re mostly concerned the NASS numbers will send a wrong signal to potential hay buyers. “It’s worrisome,” says Hale. “People will look at those numbers and think there’s a lot more hay out there than there really is, and that will affect prices. That’s something we, as growers, don’t need right now. We’ve already seen prices drop to about half of what they were a year ago.”

Larson says the numbers could also lead dairy producers to postpone buying hay. During a typical growing season, he says, many of his customers forward-contract a year’s supply of hay to lock in a price. “But if they believe there’s a big supply out there, they’re more likely to go along and buy month to month or on an as-needed basis. But what happens when we get into January and February and there isn’t any hay around? They’re going to have to scramble to find hay and that hay is going to be a lot more expensive.”

Vince Matthews, director of Idaho’s NASS field office, says the acreage and yield numbers in the August report are based on farmer responses to NASS mail and telephone surveys. The survey on acreage was conducted in June. The survey on yields was conducted in late July and asked respondents to forecast expected yields for both irrigated and non-irrigated fields as of Aug. 1.

Matthews notes that the surveys involve random sampling and are structured to ensure different- size operations are represented. About 80% of those contacted actually reply. “We make every effort to get answers from enough growers to get a good, reliable result,” he says.

Matthews adds that the Aug. 12 report was based on responses from these farmers and compiled in the usual way and based on the numbers reported to NASS. "The excessive rains definitely affected quality and disrupted harvesting schedules, but the yields reported to us support the tons per acre (cited in the report),” he says.

Are Crop Production estimates released during the growing season reliable? We’d like to know what you think on this topic. Email hfg@hayandforage.com and put "Crop Estimates" in the subject line.