Only 54.9 million tons of alfalfa and alfalfa-mix hay are likely to be produced in the U.S. this year – down 16% from last year’s total, according to USDA in its Aug. 10 Crop Production report.

If that estimate is realized, alfalfa hay production could be at its lowest level since the drought year of 1953. Other hay production is also down – by less than 1% from last year’s total.

Alfalfa and alfalfa-mix hay yield, based on Aug. 1 conditions, is expected to average 2.92 tons/acre. That’s down 0.48 ton from last year’s yield and could be the lowest U.S. yield since 1988, another drought year. Harvested area is forecast at 18.8 million acres, down 2% from the 2011 total but unchanged from June’s total.

The cause of this year’s lower yield estimate? Hot temperatures and limited rainfall that depleted soil moisture across much of the country. Some of the largest expected yield declines were evident in the Great Plains and Corn Belt, where July temperatures averaged more than 6º above normal and precipitation totals were less than 50% of normal.

Some Western producers used fields to graze livestock, as below-average irrigation water supplies limited the number of anticipated cuttings. Yet producers in Arizona, where much of the alfalfa crop is irrigated, anticipate record-setting yields this year.

Production of other hay is forecast at 65.4 million tons, which could make it the lowest production level since 1990. Based on Aug. 1 conditions, yields are likely to average 1.69 tons/acre, down 0.12 ton from last year’s figure and possibly the lowest U.S. average since 1988. Harvested area is forecast at 38.8 million acres, unchanged from June’s figure but up 6% from last year’s total.

As with alfalfa, the yield potential of other hay wilted due to prolonged drought in most states; the exception is the Deep South. The Corn Belt is expected to be hit hardest in yield, as hot, dry weather brought severe to exceptional drought conditions as summer progressed. Areas along the Gulf Coast and into portions of the Southeast received timely rains, allowing for yield recovery in pastures and grass hay fields when compared with 2011 growing conditions.

For information on how the drought has affected growers in various states, see our Hay & Forage Grower August issue story, "Drought Dampens Forage Prospects."