Water availability will be a factor in determining how many alfalfa acres California growers plant for the 2009 growing season, said Seth Hoyt, former USDA marketing analyst.

Hoyt spoke at the early December California Alfalfa Symposium in San Diego. He edits The Hoyt Report, a hay marketing newsletter.

“Some growers are not planting all their alfalfa hay; they’re waiting until spring to plant the balance to see if they have enough irrigation water.”

The number of acres planted to wheat will also impact alfalfa acreage, he added. “We had a tremendous amount of wheat in 2008 (76% more wheat acres planted than in 2007). I think we’re going to see another strong year of wheat next year. In the Central Valley, we’ll see more beardless wheat, where the growers have three options … green crop, hay or, if the grain market improves, go into wheat for grain.”

The Imperial Valley won’t have as many wheat acres as in 2008, but it will be the second largest seen in a long time, he said. “Some growers were able to make contracts earlier in the season for $17-20/bu on durum. The latest offer I heard was $15/bu in the Imperial Valley just recently.

“One grower told me, when he goes into the bank, that the banker knows the water situation,” Hoyt pointed out. “He said, ‘Wheat is less risk, takes less water and comes off early, so you’re more favorable with the banker, because the banker knows what the water situation is.”

The processed tomato market may also take some alfalfa acres in the Central Valley. Although cotton acres have dropped to the lowest level since 1930, Hoyt doesn’t see alfalfa taking much of that acreage. “We’ll have a little bit of that happen, but the big crop I’m hearing that will displace cotton? It’s wheat.”

“What to expect in 2009? Alfalfa hay acres in California will be down, probably to 920,000 acres. We had 950,000 acres this year. If we have normal rain and snowpack, which we haven’t seen yet, there’s a chance that acres could even be slightly higher. If we don’t get the rain and snowpack, I think that the drop in the alfalfa acres in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley will offset a 10% increase in the Imperial Valley.”