A shortage of water continues to be a critical issue faced by Western growers, according to specialists who spoke on emerging forage issues at the Western Alfalfa and Forage Conference held last week in Reno, NV.

Nevertheless, said Glenn Shewmaker, forage specialist with the University of Idaho, improved varieties, sprinkler management, more attention to alfalfa as a cash crop – and a surge of new dairies – have helped Northwestern growers get more money per acre.

“Of course, drought still affects the supply so regional hay stocks are low,” he told more than 750 people attending the conference.

With the dairy industry’s growing demand for hay, the supply, availability and quality of water were cited as “most critical” in Southwestern states by forage specialist Dan Putnam, University of California, Davis.

Water-quality regulations have been intensifying. Watershed groups were created and have taxed farmer-members to fund water-quality monitoring in California, Putnam said. At the same time, alfalfa yields are steady but not increasing, he added. “Over the last 20 years, yields have stayed the same; that’s an important issue for the future.”

Both specialists specified forage industry trends common to their regions:

Markets – The increase in number of dairies is “phenomenal,” Putnam said. “New Mexico has emerged from a very minor dairy state to one of the top 10 dairy states in the U.S., with a growth of over 700% in cow numbers since 1980.” Idaho shows a 300% rise; Arizona, more than 200%. However, the absolute growth in cow numbers has been greatest in California, which accounts for over 50% of the growth in Western dairies. All Western states now produce over 40% of the nation’s milk, up from about 15% in the mid-1970s, and also over 40% of the nation’s alfalfa.

The horse market has increased “everywhere,” said Shewmaker. The need for organic forages is increasing, but is considered a niche market, he added.

Export markets in the Pacific Northwest are also increasing; 5% of that area’s hay production, and nearly 20% of Washington state production, are exported to the Pacific Rim.

Rising costs – “We’ve seen rising costs of energy and they’re going to affect regional and international marketing of hay and forage products,” Shewmaker declared. “Hauling forages great distances is highly dependent on continued cheap energy costs. I don’t think we’re headed there – certainly not if ethanol comes to fruition; it’s still going to be expensive. Operating costs have already increased and will continue to for irrigation and for nitrogen fertilizer. The nitrogen credits from growing legumes such as alfalfa are valuable for reducing costs of growing other crops.”

Corn silage – Acreage of corn planted for silage has doubled in Idaho and grown substantially in California, Arizona and New Mexico. This makes it a major competitor for alfalfa hay in dairy rations, said Putnam. Alfalfa’s loss of market share is significant, he added. “The relatively high costs of alfalfa hay (vs. other forages and feeds) is an important factor, as is the need for manure management and its link to corn silage and small-grain forage in the dairy regions.”