He’ll likely remember 2012 for its highs – and lows, says alfalfa grower Philip Bowles of Bowles Farming, Inc., Los Banos, CA. On the upside, production was “just this side of fantastic.” On the downside, sagging financial prospects for his dairy customers remain a major concern.

With adequate water, no great weather extremes and a lack of insect pressure, Bowles was able to take a seventh cutting off a large percentage of his 3,500 acres in 2012. “It was as good a seventh cutting as I’ve ever seen. Typically, we’re lucky to get a seventh cutting on a few of our fields.”

His overall yields were just shy of 7 tons/acre this year; a typical year averages around 6.5 tons/acre.

Bowles packages most of his hay in three-tie bales weighing around 135 lbs; large squares are made in summer months when he doesn’t have to worry about fire in his stacks. He markets about 90% of his hay to California dairies and relies on a broker to sell the rest of his production in the horse market.

The unstable dairy industry, and how it will affect growers, worries him. “Dairy producers continue to have a tough time of it. And our fortunes depend on them. If they’re making money and are profitable, alfalfa growers will do just fine.”

Milk prices have improved in recent weeks. “If that trend holds, there could be some room for hay prices to move up,” Bowles says.

Currently, the price for supreme-quality alfalfa hay in Bowles’ area is around $250/ton at the stack. Depending on test and appearance, good dairy-quality hay is bringing anywhere from $220 to $250/ton, while utility hay is selling for $190/ton.

In a “marketing experiment” during the summer, Bowles intentionally delayed harvest on one cutting. “We thought that, with the collapse in dairy prices, there wouldn’t be that much of an incentive for dairy producers to try to get that last 5 lbs of milk production. That’s the reason to feed high-test hay. On our end, we figured we’d make up what we lost on price per ton by getting a little better yield.”

He was surprised by the outcome. “Even with the low milk prices, we found dairy producers still wanted that super-high-testing hay. The economics of milk production aren’t always that easy to figure out.”

To contact Bowles, call 209-827-3000 or email peb@bfarm.com.