The U.S. Drought Monitor map for the Western U.S., released March 20, did little to ease many regional hay growers’ concerns whether they’ll have enough water during the upcoming growing season.

Nearly all of California is experiencing drought, with just more than two-thirds of the state falling into the severe or exceptional drought categories, the map shows. Large pockets of Nevada and New Mexico also are in severe and exceptional drought.

Predictions that the drought would persist or intensify in those three states as well as in parts of Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas were made in the Spring Outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also released March 20. If that comes to pass, “it will likely result in an active wildfire season, continued stress on crops and livestock due to low water levels and an expansion of water conservation measures,” according to an NOAA press release.

The drought monitor map, however, did offer a few bright spots. March rain and mountain snowfall in the Cascades brought some relief to parts of Oregon and Washington. Recent heavy snow also eased moderate drought conditions in southern Idaho.

In the following reports, growers from several of the region’s major hay-growing areas tell what current conditions have to offer:

Nevada. Western and northern parts of the state appear headed for a second straight year of severe drought, reports Dan Knisley, an alfalfa grower and broker in Lovelock. He grows alfalfa on 1,900 acres of flood-irrigated ground at Great Basin Farms.

Last year, Knisley’s water allotment for the entire growing season was just 10% of normal. Even with a fair amount of carryover moisture in the ground early on, his production for 2013 was just 30% of normal.

“Things could still turn around, but right now it’s not looking good. They tell us that the snowpack is about 80-90%, but there’s nothing coming into the river. We’ll know a lot more by May,” he says. This year, his allotment is likely to be zero.

“Concerns about the potential shortfall are already pushing area hay prices higher. Contracts for “good, green hay” going to California are $225-230/ton, up $20-30/ton from last year’s levels. “Those are just sales I’ve been involved in. I’ve heard of even higher prices. There are a lot of people aggressively looking to get next season’s hay bought right now. It’s an uncertain market.”

New Mexico. Parts of the state remain extremely dry coming out of winter, reports alfalfa grower and custom baler Doug Whitney, of Roswell.

“In our area, we haven’t had any noticeable precipitation since November, just a couple of minor storms that didn’t give us anything measurable,” he says. “We’ve been in drought for the last four years. Right now, we’re seeing a massive amount of tumbleweeds and dust with drifts of blowing sand accumulating.”

Whitney, a past president of the New Mexico Hay Association, expects to have enough metered water to irrigate his crop through the season. “But continued drought is taking its toll on our wells, particularly the shallow basin ones. We’ll still need a helping hand from Mother Nature. If we don’t get it, our production could be off by 15-35% this year.”

He estimates that new-crop prices will start at last year’s levels – $260-290/ton for high-end alfalfa at the farm. “The overall feed supply in our area isn’t quite as short as it has been in recent years. But it’s dry in such a large area around us that I don’t see it (the supply) being long by any means.”

Dairies in the region have been shifting away from hay to corn silage in their feeding rations, he notes. “That may shift the pressure off the hay supply. But, then again, you can only grow as much of either one of those crops as you have water for.”

Idaho, Washington Get Water

Idaho. Ample precipitation in late February and early March has considerably brightened the outlook for the state’s alfalfa growers, says Will Ricks, of Ricks Hay Farms, LLC, near Monteview.

“We were pretty dry heading into the winter after last fall,” says Ricks, who grows alfalfa on 2,000 irrigated acres. “And we didn’t have much in the way of precipitation during December or January. People were starting to get concerned about whether we’d have enough water for irrigation this year.

“But then we got some good storms last month that helped us get caught back up. We’re not 100% out of the woods just yet. But it’s looking a lot better than it was just a few weeks ago.”

Dairies in southern Idaho and export firms are the primary markets for Ricks, who is president of the Idaho Hay and Forage Association. For the year ahead, the alfalfa market should remain strong, he says. “With California being so short on water, it looks like the supply will be pretty tight. They’re the driving force for a lot that goes on in this part of the country. Also, the price of milk looks better for our dairy customers. That may be good for alfalfa prices.”

Corn prices are a wild card. “If (corn) stays low, it would be one thing that would keep alfalfa prices from going higher.”

Locally, growers will closely watch their newly seeded alfalfa fields for signs of winterkill. “We didn’t have a lot of snow cover for most of the winter. Two years ago, we had similar weather and we lost a fair amount of alfalfa to winterkill. We could be looking at that again. Depending how widespread that is, it could have an impact on the alfalfa market also.”

Washington. Irrigation water also looks to be plentiful in Washington State’s Upper Columbia River Basin, reports alfalfa grower Shawn Clausen, of Stokrose Farms near Warden.

“For alfalfa, we really don’t have any concerns coming out of the winter,” says Clausen, former president of the Washington Hay Growers Association. “Most of our water comes out of Canada. The snowpack there has been above normal this winter, and our main reservoir here is full to capacity right now.”

He’s optimistic that high-end hay prices will remain fairly strong in the year ahead. Last year, Clausen, who has 2,000 irrigated alfalfa acres, sold most of his higher-quality crop to exporters. The price was in the $200-235/ton range at the stack. Feeder-quality hay went for around $175/ton.

“We could see more of a spread between the feeder-quality hay and the top-end alfalfa this year. The drought situation in California could bring some more export demand up north. Also, with milk prices improving, the dairies will be competing more for high-test hay. In the past couple of years, it wasn’t financially possible for them to do so.”