New U.S. seedings of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures increased by 5% last year over the 2.39 million acres planted in 2012. It was the second year in a row to see an increase, even though it’s the third-lowest total of newly seeded acres on record, according to the 2013 Crop Production Summary released by USDA in early January.

Still, the back-to-back years of gains represent good news for the hay and forage sector, says Matt Diersen, ag economist with South Dakota State University.

“Nationwide, we had 2.5 million new acres planted in 2013,” says Diersen. “That tells me we could be coming off the bottom for really low, harvested (alfalfa) acres. Any way you look at it, that’s a good thing. Without some additional acres, we’re going to have continued swings in supplies and prices and more volatility in the market. This, at least, is a move in the right direction.”

Also, U.S. hay production rebounded last year from the extremely low levels of 2012. Growers produced 136 million tons of all hay in 2013, up 13% from the previous year’s total, USDA reports. Area harvested was estimated at 58.3 million acres, up 4% from that harvested last year. The average yield, at 2.33 tons/acre, was up 0.20 ton from the previous year’s average yield.

For alfalfa, USDA estimated 2013 production at 57.6 million tons, up 11% from 2012 production. Harvested area, at 17.8 million acres, was 3% higher than in 2012, while average yield was estimated at 3.24 tons/acre, up 0.23 ton.

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In its Jan. 10 Crop Production report, USDA estimated that hay stocks on U.S. farms as of Dec. 1, 2013, totaled 89.3 million tons, an increase of 17% from the year-earlier figure. Disappearance from May 1 to Dec. 1 was 60.5 million tons vs. 64.7 million tons during the same period in 2012.

Compared to the year-earlier report, 2013 hay stocks were lower in the Southeast, Delta and Southwest, due mostly to lower production.

Stocks were unchanged in California, but Diersen says the supply situation there and in neighboring states bears watching. An extended drought in parts of the region already has livestock producers scrambling for scarce supplies as prices push higher (see “Will Western Drought Keep Alfalfa Acreage Low, Prices High?”).

Continued strength in U.S. hay exports – on pace to be 4% higher during the current marketing year than they were last year – will likely put further pressure on domestic hay supplies and prices within the region. “If I’m a hay buyer, the closer I am to California, the more nervous or skittish I’m likely to be about the supply situation,” he says.

Read more from Hay & Forage Grower:

High Freight Costs Hinder Northwestern Hay Exports

Hay Prices Slide In Certain Plains States

Alfalfa Gets $1.35 Million In Federal Research Funding