King Cotton hasn't been dethroned in California's San Joaquin Valley, but his royal crown has been knocked askew by alfalfa and economics.

That's especially true in the Visalia area, where cotton acreage has slipped 50% in the last five years -- and it's not over yet.

"Alfalfa is the crop of choice to replace cotton," says Visalia Co-op Gin manager Larry Gallian. He expects about 20% less cotton to be planted this year.

Factors at work against cotton are low prices, low yields, insect problems and big dairies. A large number of dairies have moved to the valley over the last 15 years -- mainly from around Los Angeles. Although the influx has slowed, it's still happening.

Dairies' huge appetite for hay -- causing hay prices to stay well above $100 per ton the past three years -- has turned the gloomy outlook for cotton into a glowing one for alfalfa.

"Everyone is worried about cotton because of the price," says Mark Braaten of Central California Implement Co. in Tulare. "That's why alfalfa acres are up from last year. But even if we have a decent increase in alfalfa, there will still be a shortage of hay."

It seems whenever ag people get together in the valley, talk shifts to alfalfa. At this point, with spring planting still ahead, the precise figure on alfalfa acreage is unknown. But the perception is that it will be up significantly.

"There is no doubt about an increase in alfalfa production in the San Joaquin Valley," agrees Dan Putnam, extension forage specialist at the University of California-Davis.

USDA figures show an estimated 970,000 alfalfa acres in California in 1997, about 30,000 acres more than in 1996. Putnam predicts a 10-15% increase this year, with much of the gain coming in the San Joaquin Valley.

If Putnam is right, where will all that hay go, and what will happen to hay prices?

The consensus is that the hay will stay right there -- at the dairies. Some dairies are milking up to 6,000 cows and milk production is going up.

During the last 10 years, according to Putnam, milk production has grown by 4.5-5% per year. Last year, there was a 7.5% increase.

"Over the last three to four years, hay demand has outstripped supply," he states.

Currently, hay is being imported from several other states to meet the demand. So if prices get too far out of line, they will be quickly corrected by an influx of out-of-state hay.

"I don't see a crash in hay prices as supplies increase, but it will have a moderating influence," says Putnam.