By Rick Mooney
Editor, eHay Weekly

Hay growers and other farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley will be getting more irrigation water this year than they were expecting just a few months ago. But water shortages, resulting from a three-year-long drought and court-ordered measures aimed at protecting fish species in the state’s Delta Region, remain a major concern.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that 2010 water allocations would be increased to 40% for contractors south of the Delta. That’s up from 30% in April and 5% at the end of 2009. An above-normal mountain snowpack and persistent spring storms made it possible to increase the allotments, say officials.

“It’s better than it was, but we’re still not back anywhere close to normal,” says Rick Staas, CEO of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association, a cooperative with 275 members in the state’s Central Valley. “A lot of growers are still very nervous about their allotments.”

Water shortages, coupled with low hay prices in 2009, are a major factor behind forecasts that alfalfa acreage in California in 2010 could drop to its lowest level in 60 years. By some estimates, alfalfa plantings in the state this year could be as low as 850,000 acres. “I’ve been in this business for 28 years, and the lowest I’ve ever seen it was 950,000 acres,” says Staas.

The same spring storms that produced the rains allowing government officials to boost water allocations have also delayed first-crop alfalfa hay harvest in many parts of the Central Valley. “It’s put us about a month behind schedule,” Staas says. “Guys just kept waiting and waiting to get going on first cutting. We’re going to see some good tonnages, but the quality is down.”

One result of the delayed harvest: A shortfall of top-end dairy-quality hay that has already started to push prices upward. Staas says hay testing 56% TDN and 21% crude protein or better is currently bringing around $160/ton at growers’ ranches. That’s up $15-20/ton from year-ago levels. “Right now, supplies of that kind of hay are few and far between.”

While the supply is tight enough to justify even higher hay prices, Staas says that’s unlikely to happen until dairy producers see an improvement in milk prices. “Right now, the payability on the dairy side just isn’t there.”

To contact Staas, call 209-835-1662 or email haygrower@caldsl.net.