Iowa alfalfa acres are down, hay prices are up – and it’s getting dry in the northwestern part of the state, reported Iowa State University Extension agronomist Steve Barnhart.

“The speculation is, with corn and grain prices as they are, we’re going to lose more acreage of alfalfa,” he told participants at the March 9 forage Extension and industry advisory meeting held in La Crosse, WI.

Last year, USDA-National Ag Statistics Service estimated a 7% drop, or a total of 820,000 acres, in alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures harvested as hay in Iowa compared to that harvested in 2010. Iowa’s harvested alfalfa hay production in 2011 was down that same percentage from the 2010 figure, at 2.788 million tons. Other hay harvested remained steady at 320,000 acres, with no good statistics as to whether they were grass or clover-based hay acres – or acres of cereal grains used for forage, Barnhart said. Dry-hay production was about 8% lower.

Corn acres harvested for silage were 17% lower in 2011 vs. in 2010. Only about 42% of the state’s planted oat acres – 50,000 acres out of 120,000 – were harvested as grain last year. He suspects the rest was stored and fed as oat hay or silage, or grazed.

Dairy-quality hay prices, from last fall on, increased about $20/ton each month, Barnhart said, and now average about $100/ton more than they did last year at this time – around $200-250/ton. “Medium-quality hay is also starting to ratchet up – $40-60/ton compared to what it was a year ago.”

As they are elsewhere around the U.S., hay supplies are relatively short in Iowa, he added. “As I read Hay & Forage Grower and other magazines, some producers are going to try to plant more (hay acres) and some are going to put more into corn.” (See "To Seed Or Not To Seed; Hay Growers Ponder.")

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the state’s northwestern corner has been dry, having little rainfall the entire last half of the area’s growing season, Barnhart said.

“I have not seen any winter injury yet. We have had an extremely warm winter – not much snow cover, but so far the nights have been cold enough that I don’t think we have had any alfalfa break dormancy yet.”

Breaking dormancy may be a concern, as temperatures have warmed this past week. If it again turns cold, those young alfalfa shoots may experience damage, he warned.