Some California hay growers are trading yield for quality by planting dormant alfalfa varieties in what has been considered semi-dormant territory, says Dan Putnam, University of California alfalfa and forage extension specialist.

“In the Sacramento Valley and the upper part of the San Joaquin Valley, they're growing some of the types of varieties being grown in Minnesota,” he says. “Some of the seed companies are telling us that 60-70% of their seed sales are in those fall dormancy classes.”

Fall dormancy (FD) 3 and 4 varieties are traditionally grown in cold-winter areas. But they're taking the place of the more traditional FD 6s to 8s to provide the higher-quality feeds California dairymen want, he says.

“I keep telling them at my field days that they're going to take a yield penalty if they do that. We get higher-quality harvests, but a 1- to 2- or 2½-ton yield penalty.” Putnam estimates yield reductions of ½-ton/acre for each lower fall dormancy number planted.

“I'm not saying their strategy is wrong; I'm just saying I don't think they're aware of how much yield they are losing,” he says.

Growing lower-yielding, higher-quality varieties works best in a ‘down’ price year, when price premiums for quality are higher, Putnam says. “In a year like 2007, though, it doesn't pay to favor quality over yield. When even medium-quality hay is selling for well over $150/ton in most areas, growers should go primarily for yields.”

However, over the course of an alfalfa planting, the market may change and favor quality over yield. Also, several high-yielding FD 6 and 7 varieties produce better quality and make sense for many areas of the Sacramento Valley, Putnam says.

The trend is economically driven, says Craig Sharp, co-owner of Eureka Seeds, Woodland, CA. When hay prices are high, semi-dormants will total 60% of total sales and dormants, 40%. In a year with lower hay prices, 60% of the seed will be in the FD 3-4 range and 40% in the semi-dormant.

He estimates that FD 4 varieties are half of what's planted in the Sacramento Valley, a part of the Central Valley, which also includes the San Joaquin Valley.

Seven to 10 years ago, established hay growers resorted to growing more-dormant varieties to get an edge over opportunists who started producing hay when the market demand was high, Sharp says.

“A lot of the hay was not making it into the dairy market and was getting discounted, opening up a big price range between dairy-quality and ‘non-test’ hay.”

Growers asked themselves, says Sharp, “ ‘What can I do to differentiate myself and make sure I get good test quality?’ So they planted lower-dormancy varieties.

“By going to a 4 dormancy, they take about 15% less yield overall, over a four-year average. But they have the better chance of meeting the standards for dairy-quality hay,” he adds.

Mick Canevari, a University of California farm advisor in the San Joaquin Valley, typically recommends lower fall dormancy alfalfas to growers who are intent on providing hay for the dairy industry.

“In my area, I would guess that 60% of the acreage is in lower fall dormancy varieties,” he says. In the intermountain northern parts of California, FD 3 varieties are used. Moving south through the Central Valley, the fall dormancy continues to get higher until reaching the Imperial Valley, where FD 9 and 10 varieties are grown.

Canevari thinks hay users have created a split market. Dairymen want higher TDN/protein; beef producers and horse owners don't. So growers who target the dairy market use dormant varieties. “Others are more into high yields and not necessarily high protein or high forage quality, so they will use FD 7s and 8s.” The difference in price could be $50/ton, he estimates. “The market price drives growers' decisions.”

“There is also an increase in the non-dormant plantings in the northern part of the state,” Sharp adds. “It's not widespread, but a lot of guys have given up on trying to make dairy quality because of the heat or type of soil they are on. They're pretty much resigned to the fact that they're going to grow for the horse market, which basically is just tonnage and clean hay.”

This split market, Sharp thinks, is here to stay. “Dormant varieties do give better quality opportunities and the dormants we have now are much better than the ones we had 10 or 15 years ago. A lot of alfalfas in that class are adapting well to the soil types, the diseases and the change in planting area. I think plant breeders are doing a better job of developing varieties that adapt well in California.”