Also, with water shortages to bring less cotton acreage in the valley, there will be reduced supplies of cottonseed, an important source of energy and fat in the dairy ration, Robinson noted. With cottonseed prices already elevated and expected to go higher, he added, dairy farmers may choose to feed more forage as a substitute.
"But if you're also dumbing down the corn silage by converting it to sorghum, then you're going to have problems formulating rations that continue to have high milk flows," he said. "Overall, I don't think there's any way that we don't see a reduction in milk production over the summer."
Rollin said he already grows sorghum as part of the feed mix for his heifers but noted that corn silage and wheat silage are still the best forages for his milking herd. Over the years, he's made use of alternative feeds such as culled fruits and vegetables, including citrus, pomegranates, peaches, onions and asparagus, as well as bakery waste. This year, he's also going to start feeding soy hull pellets, a byproduct of soybean processing.
"Farmers are pretty ingenious about figuring a way to feed cattle," he said. "If there's anything of any value anywhere, it's getting gobbled up."
But with orchard farmers trying to save water to keep their trees alive, Rollin said there will be fewer acres of vegetables and other row crops that have been a source of dairy feed.
Barcellos, who also planted sorghum last year due to tight water supplies, said dairy farmers do not normally compete with beef cattle ranchers for the same feed, because beef producers usually have plenty of grasses on rangeland to graze their cattle and they also supplement with feeds that work well for beef cattle but not necessarily for milk production.
"This time, we're going to be in a situation where if there's a bale of hay that's got a string around it, everybody wants it," he said.
One feed product for which dairy farmers might be competing head on with beef producers this year is almond hulls, which are a big part of the dairy feed mixture, Robinson said.
While some cattle ranchers have already begun to shrink their herds due to dry pastures and lack of available feed, Barcellos said he hopes he won't need to make reductions on his dairy. But he noted that dairy farmers will have to make those considerations if they don't have enough feed.
Concern about available forage supplies may pressure some dairies to scale back their cow numbers, but higher milk prices may also drive them to increase stocking density, Robinson said.
Even though Fresno County dairy farmer Steve Nash grows about 70 percent of his feed and describes his farming location as a good area for groundwater, he said he's focused on maintaining his herd and trying to pay back some of the debt he's incurred in recent years.
While some dairies may be expanding to take advantage of higher milk prices, Nash said he thinks many of them will be "holding back and trying to improve their financial situation."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)