If harvested hay acreage increases this year as USDA recently predicted, the gains likely won't come in the form of alfalfa fields. Observers are sticking with their earlier predictions that alfalfa acreage will be down compared to last year's total, with growers establishing fewer new stands and plowing up some older stands to plant corn.
In its March 12 Planting Intentions report, USDA reported that growers expect to harvest 63.1 million acres of all types of hay in 2007, a 4% increase over the 2006 figure. Increases are expected in a majority of states, with some of the biggest gains coming in the Great Plains, where at least 100,000 more hay acres are projected for every state. But increased harvesting of existing grass pastures figures to account for most, if not all, of the gains in that region.
That will be the scenario in Kansas, says Steve Hessman, Kansas Department of Agriculture-USDA Market News reporter in Dodge City. "I think there are going to be more grass acres, but I don't think we'll have more alfalfa," says Hessman. "We have a strong demand for grass hay, plus we've got good moisture conditions this spring and they're going to be able to hay some meadows that haven't been productive the last couple of years. I know we've got some acres going into corn that were in alfalfa. I've talked to one or two guys who are going to plant some new alfalfa, but more is coming out than is going in."
"There are going to be attempts to harvest more hay because everybody's out of hay," agrees Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist. "People are going to cut more of their grazing land areas rather than graze them in order to build up their hay supply. But I really think that, when we get down to it, we're going to have a fairly sizable reduction in alfalfa acres."
Nationwide, alfalfa seed sales for spring planting are running about 10% below last year's level, reports Joe Waldo, alfalfa marketing manager for NK-Syngenta Seeds. His company has been encouraging growers to maintain their alfalfa acreage because of the crop's rotational benefits, including the value of plow-down nitrogen. "But I sure hadn't gotten a feeling we were making a lot of headway," says Waldo. "Even in the Pacific Northwest, we're seeing a lot less enthusiasm for planting alfalfa compared to a year ago."
Watch for more on 2007 hay production prospects in the May issue of Hay & Forage Grower.