The first hay harvest of 2014 is months away in most parts of the country. But an extended and apparently deepening drought throughout the far West – which has helped keep hay prices high – has many hay growers there on edge about the growing season ahead.

California has been hit hardest so far – with drought and high hay prices. A U.S. Drought Monitor map for mid-January showed more than half of the state was experiencing extreme drought, while severe drought blanketed most of the rest of the state.

“It’s the third year in a row where we’ve had below-normal precipitation, and this year looks to be the worst of it,” says Norman Beach, vice president of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association in Los Banos, CA.

A major supply shortfall related to the drought during last year’s growing season has sent hay prices in many parts of the state shooting skyward. In mid-January, Beach reports, feeder-type alfalfa hay was selling at $265-270/ton delivered. A year ago, the price for the same kind of “green and clean” alfalfa was in the $215-
225/ton range.

Most unsettling for the state’s irrigated alfalfa growers is that some reservoirs were filled to just 20% of capacity as of early January. Many fear cutbacks in water allotments could be on the horizon.

That would be a major setback for alfalfa production in the state. According to USDA’s 2013 Crop Production Summary, California growers harvested 900,000 acres of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures last year, 50,000 acres fewer than in 2012.

Many industry observers, Beach says, were hopeful that strong alfalfa prices in recent years would lure back some of the lost acreage.

“But if it continues dry, a lot of the intended plantings we were hearing about won’t happen. Instead, growers will save their water for permanent, higher-value crops in the vineyards and orchards.”

There is still time for weather to turn around. January through April is typically the wettest time of the year in many parts of the state. But the clock is ticking. “If (winter-spring precipitation) is going to make a difference, it needs to come soon,” says Beach.

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Prolonged drought is also a growing concern in parts of Oregon, Nevada and Idaho.

“A lot of our reservoir levels are below normal,” says Glenn Shewmaker, forage specialist with University of Idaho Extension. “And because it was so dry last year, stream and spring flow in many areas isn’t up to par. It really takes more than average precipitation to bring us back to a normal crop production year.”

Alfalfa acreage in the state has been recovering steadily since 2011, according to USDA. Last year, Idaho growers harvested alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures on 1.12 million acres, up from 1.04 million acres in 2012 and
1 million in 2011.

Prospects for a continued drought could discourage growers from planting new alfalfa acres this year. “The tricky part with alfalfa is trying to get it established in a water-short year,” says Shewmaker.

But the dry conditions could also convince some growers to leave existing stands in place for another year rather than face the risks associated with converting to grain crops.

“A lot of growers see alfalfa as a drought-insurance crop,” he says. “It’s a perennial, so it’s already established. You can be relatively sure you’ll be able to get an early season cutting even without irrigation. You won’t have a total crop loss.

“It’s also a drought-tolerant crop. So if you have a dry early season, but then get some monsoon rains in August, you can still get another crop of hay without irrigation. In that respect, the drought might even help us maintain some of our alfalfa acres.”

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