Just as milk prices are improving, fierce competition for hay and limited water supplies to grow other feed crops have dimmed the outlook for California dairy farmers.
Poor range conditions due to drought have forced many beef cattle ranchers and sheep producers to feed more hay, depleting inventories and pushing prices up for dairy farmers, Fresno County dairyman Donny Rollin said.
"There's not a lot out here right now, so everybody is scrambling for the same stuff," he said.
He noted that even though he has purchased hay recently, scheduling a delivery has been difficult, as busy truck drivers hustle to drop off all the loads.
Tulare County dairy farmer Tom Barcellos said lack of surface water deliveries from the Friant Unit of the Central Water Project and inadequate groundwater supplies will likely force him to fallow 30 percent to 40 percent of his silage-crop acreage this summer. He said he may also have to abandon some of his alfalfa acreage in order to stretch his water supply to grow additional forage for next fall and winter.
"If we don't get any rainfall, I don't know what I'm going to do, because I don't even know that the water table can sustain the wells that are going to water the cows and wash the milk barn down," Barcellos said.
While a robust U.S. corn crop has helped to moderate corn-grain prices for dairy farmers, prices for other feed commodities such as soybean meal and cottonseed have continued to escalate. Now, California dairy producers can also expect to feel the pinch from local sources of feed, said Peter Robinson, a University of California Cooperative Extension dairy nutrition and management specialist.
He said he expects there will be reduced availability of all feed crops if drought conditions do not improve significantly. Dairy farmers will see their production costs increase, as they look to buy feed from out of state and maybe even offshore, he added.
He noted that winter wheat silage, which is planted in the fall in the San Joaquin Valley, is usually germinated by rainfall, but this year, many growers have had to irrigate to get the seeds to sprout. Because farmers probably won't want to pump much water to support the crop, Robinson said, he expects there will be less production of winter wheat this year.
He said he also expects feed-crop acreage in the San Joaquin Valley to see a significant shift away from corn silage toward sorghum, a less thirsty crop.
"Unfortunately, sorghum doesn't have the same nutritional value to dairy cows that corn does," he said, and that will impact milk production.