Firm ground: Dairy & forage producers look ahead

Editor’s note: This article includes several forage production charts. To see the charts, visit and click on the March 2010 issue of Western DairyBusiness.

One danger of riding a roller coaster is that you can get sick. The heights of 2007-08 were followed by the lows of 2009 – for milk and hay producers alike.

By Dave Natzke

Having been on the same economic ride the past three years, Western dairy producers and hay growers entered 2010 with similar financial queasiness.

In proceedings prepared for the 2009 Western Alfalfa & Forage Conference, Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis Extension forage agronomist, noted “the cash-hay system which characterizes western alfalfa and dairy production has been challenged as never before. Price swings, coupled with high cost pressure has caused negative cash flow and profitability for both hay operations and dairy producers.”

Western dairy and forage producers face similar situations entering 2010. Substantial carryovers from 2009 production hang over the market, but improved demand should stabilize the price floor. Longer-term, the two highly interdependent sectors will likely continue on the same financial and environmental ride, according to Putnam. Innovations to stabilize pricing arrangements and innovations to improve productivity, quality, water use efficiency and environmental impacts are needed, he concluded.

2009 production in review

While marketing has caused pain, forage production really hasn’t been the issue. USDA’s annual reports, released in January 2010, summarize 2009 forage and hay production stories.

Nationally, high prices and demand for corn and soybeans pulled some acreage away from forage crops again in 2009, with nearly all crops seeing declines in harvested area. However, strong yields offset some of those acreage declines.

Eighteen states participate in a USDA forage estimation program, with an emphasis on total alfalfa production. The total 2009 all haylage and greenchop production for those states was 31.5 million tons, of which 21.3 million tons were from alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures.

The estimated forage area harvested was 35.8 million acres, including 15.7 million acres from alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures. The total forage was 723,000 acres less than 2008, and total forage production was down 4% from last year. The U.S. yield was estimated at 2.78 tons per acre, down 0.60 ton from 2008.

Sorghum silage production was estimated at 3.68 million tons in 2009, down 35% from 2008. Average yield was estimated at 14.5 tons per acre, up 0.7 ton; harvested area was 254,000 acres, down 38%.

Corn silage production was estimated at 108 million tons in 2009, down 3%. Average yield hit a record-high 19.3 tons per acre, up 0.6 ton from 2008. Acreage harvested was estimated at 5.61 million acres, down 6% from a year earlier.

Dry hay

Production of all dry hay for 2009 was estimated at 147 million tons, up 1% from 2008. Area harvested, at 59.8 million acres, was down 1%; average yield, at 2.47 tons per acre, was up 0.04 ton from the previous year.

Production of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures in 2009 was estimated at 71.0 million tons, down 1% from 2008. Harvested area, at 21.2 million acres, was up 1% from the previous year; average yield was 3.35 tons per acre, 0.02 ton more than 2008.

Several Western states posted 100,000-acre or more increases in 2009 harvested area: Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. In competition for corn and soybeans, Midwest states with the largest decreases in harvested acres included Iowa, down 230,000 acres; and Michigan and Missouri, each down 70,000 acres.

Yields were up in the extreme Western states and the Upper Missouri Valley area, but down in the Corn Belt. Arizona recorded the highest alfalfa hay yield, at 8.50 tons per acre.

Production of all other hay in 2009 totaled 76.4 million tons, down slightly. Area for harvest, at 38.5 million acres, was down 1%; average yield, at 1.98 tons per acre, was up 0.03 ton from 2008.

Arizona had the highest yield increase from 2008, at 0.80 ton per acre, while California recorded the largest yield decrease, 0.70 ton per acre. States with acreage increases from 2008 were led by Oklahoma and Texas, with 300,000- and 200,000-acre increases, respectively. Largest acreage decrease occurred in North Dakota, down 380,000 acres, and Kansas, down 350,000.

Hay stocks

Strong hay production and lower cattle inventories contributed to higher hay stocks entering 2010. Disappearance from May-December 2009 totaled 62.3 million tons, down about 2 million tons from the same period a year earlier.

All hay stored on farms Dec. 1, 2009 totaled 107 million tons, up 3% from a year ago. Hay stocks increased in the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest, northern Great Plains and Southeast, with the exception of Florida. The southern Great Plains and Great Lakes showed lower stocks.

New seedings

Growers seeded 2.67 million acres of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures during 2009, down 1% from 2008. The largest decrease occurred in California, down 70,000 acres from 2008. The largest increase was in Oklahoma, with an additional 55,000 acres.


■  For more information on forage acreage and yields, log on to and click on “Crops and Plants.”

■  Find “Envisioning the Future for Alfalfa & Forage Crops in the West,” by Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis Extension forage agronomist, at Contact
Putnam at