The nation's No. 1 dairy state is facing a severe shortage of high-quality hay, and its cow numbers continue to grow. Top hay in the Golden State was selling for $200/ton or more over the summer, with no letup in sight.

From January 2004 through May 2005, California dairy producers added an average of slightly more than 3,000 cows per month to the state's dairy herd. Yet even without an expanding milk herd, keeping up with the demand for supreme- and premium-quality dairy hay would be difficult for area growers.

“There's a tremendous demand for top-quality hay in California and we may not be able to supply it,” says dairy nutritionist Mark Aseltine, Atascadero, CA. “Some people say we'll never see cheap hay in California again.”

“The whole West is short high-quality hay this year,” says Jack Getz, USDA market reporter at Moses Lake, WA. “Utah and Nevada don't have as much as they would like, and the hay situation in California will be tight until we start cutting again next year.”

No wonder California dairy producers have turned toward alternative sources of forage and innovative strategies to balance their rations.

“The hay we typically buy from Nevada and Utah isn't coming in like it used to,” says Aseltine. “Most of the dairies have backed off on alfalfa. Instead of feeding 15 lbs/cow, they're feeding 8-10 lbs.”

Cutting back on alfalfa means producers need to replace fiber, protein and energy. Almond and soybean hulls easily replace the fiber, Aseltine says. For those who took off a good crop of silage this year, he recommends increasing the daily amount by 5-10 lbs/cow/day.

Up to 8 lbs/cow of cottonseed are being used to replace both protein and fiber. And producers have added more of the protein meals. What mix of feedstuffs producers ultimately use to replace some of this year's pricey alfalfa will vary almost daily with cost.

To replace the alfalfa hay that he's taken out of his customers' rations, Aseltine says he needs to use an energy source other than corn, which is already being used to its maximum. So he's using bypass fats, such as Arm & Hammer's Megalac and Virtus Nutrition's EnerG II calcium salts.

“I use them all the time on high-producing dairies,” he says. “And I'm using them more now that the price of alfalfa has gotten so high. They're pure energy.”

Straight animal and/or vegetable fats, or dairy blends, can also be fed.

“Dairies need a balanced ration, but they don't need 20 lbs of alfalfa,” Aseltine adds.

“Dairies will have to use lesser-quality hay this winter and feed more grain or other sources of energy,” says Getz. “Lesser-quality supplies are available, but hay overall is tight in California.”

The state's fall cuttings could yield some top-quality hay, provided the fall rains hold off. But yield is typically lower in fall.

“The stands are tired and ready to slow down production levels,” says Getz.