Even with high hay prices, last fall’s alfalfa seedings were below forage-industry expectations in many parts of the country. The question now: Will plantings this coming spring lead to a significant rebound in total alfalfa acres?

“Because of hay prices currently, there’s more interest in alfalfa planting than there’s been for a few years,” answers Robin Newell, senior business manager-forages for DuPont Pioneer. “But because of the drought situation in the Upper Midwest, some people who wanted to plant alfalfa this fall weren’t able to.”

If winter brings more moisture to the region, Newell believes alfalfa plantings could take off this spring. “It’s anybody’s guess. But there’s a lot of pent-up demand for forages right now. With the high prices we’re seeing for hay, I can’t imagine that we won’t see more acres moving into alfalfa.”

Mike Velde, alfalfa breeder for Dairyland Seed, is also “optimistic” that spring plantings will be on the upswing in 2013. “It was pretty light this fall in the Upper Midwest,” he says. “It was just plain tough to get any kind of stand established because of the dry conditions. But hay inventories are extremely low and many growers will want, or need, to rotate some of their corn ground into alfalfa.”

While weather conditions were more favorable in Pennsylvania, “anecdotal reports” suggest little activity in alfalfa plantings this past fall, reports Marvin Hall, forage specialist with Penn State University Extension. He looks for overall alfalfa acreage in the state to remain constant this year.

The state has lost 150,000 acres of alfalfa production in the last five years, Hall notes. While much of the loss can be attributed to producers looking to capitalize on strong corn prices, several back-to-back years of winterkilled alfalfa likely also played a role. “At a certain point, growers figure they can’t afford to keep growing alfalfa and make the switch over to corn.”

Based on preliminary planting reports from San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association members, alfalfa acreage is also likely to stay static in California in the year ahead, says Rick Staas, CEO of the group. “I don’t expect alfalfa acres to increase much, but I don’t think they’ll be down very much either.”

Uncertainty within the state’s dairy industry has led many growers in the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento Valley to convert alfalfa ground to almond, walnut and grape production. “When there’s a viable alternative paying just as much as alfalfa, a lot of people say, ‘Let’s just take the more convenient route and not have to worry about how the milk price and cheese price are doing,’ ” Staas explains.

Fall plantings were strong in areas. In Michigan, seed dealers reported that forage seed of all kinds “flew out the door in August and September,” notes Jerry Lindquist, grazing and crops educator with Michigan State University Extension.

Much of the fall planting activity was made up of annuals planted as emergency forages in the wake of the drought. “There was a lot of perennial grass seed and alfalfa seed being planted, too,” he says.

Commercial growers looking to take advantage of higher hay prices explain the upsurge in fall plantings in part, says Lindquist. But increased interest by livestock producers caught short on forage supplies due to last year’s drought also likely played a role.

“Based on what happened with the drought, a lot of people are thinking more about managing risk,” he says, noting that dairy-quality alfalfa prices climbed as high as $400/ton in areas of the state. “For many, the drought plan coming into last year was to go out and buy feed if they needed it. Now, people are thinking they’d better go out and plant more acres to forages so they’ll have enough of their own feed to get through if we have another short crop year.”

In Idaho, fairly mild weather, coupled with adequate water supplies, led to above-normal fall seedings of alfalfa in many parts of the state, reports Glenn Shewmaker, forage specialist with University of Idaho Extension.

The key factor, he says, is that dairy-quality hay prices – around $200/ton through most of the fall – are competitive with corn and other grains. “With a yield of 8 tons/acre and a price of $200/ton, you’re looking at income of $1,600/acre,” Shewmaker explains. “That’s what you’d get for 200 bu/acre corn at $8/bu. But with alfalfa, the input costs are lower.”

Continued strength in export markets, and the likelihood that milk-cow numbers in the state will stay steady for the foreseeable future, could draw more acres into alfalfa production this year, he says. “Both are positive factors for the market.”