Last year’s drought in the south central U.S. wreaked havoc on dairy producers like Doug Idsinga, of Portales, N.M.

Among other things, it caused him and others to go all the way to Ontario, Canada, for alfalfa hay. They are paying $300 a ton for the hay, delivered, and that is contributing to a potentially disastrous economic situation. The high feed cost is forcing many New Mexico producers below their break-even cost, Idsinga says, “especially with the milk prices going down every day.”

Things have to improve or some dairymen will be going out of business, adds his wife, Beverly Idsinga, executive director of the Dairy Producers of New Mexico. 

While alfalfa remains the “queen” of forages — and producers like Idsinga are willing to go 1,400 miles to get it — there is a point where people start saying “enough.”

As a result of high prices and the smaller supplies of alfalfa hay, dairymen have started feeding less alfalfa hay in their dairy rations, hay market analyst Seth Hoyt told those attending a World Ag Expo seminar in Tulare, Calif., last week.

In 2010, producers in California fed their milk cows 11.15 pounds of alfalfa hay per cow per day, on average, and that dropped to 8.6 pounds in the third quarter of 2011, he said.

One dairy in Idaho, he said, was feeding 14 pounds of hay in its ration last summer, but now is at 7 pounds. Meanwhile, the dairy increased corn silage from 45 pounds to 65 pounds per cow per day.

Given the price, alfalfa hay just hasn’t been feasible, adds Mich Etchebarne, a dairy nutritionist from Modesto, Calif.

Many of Etchebarne’s clients have significantly reduced alfalfa or eliminated it altogether from their rations, thus bucking conventional wisdom that cows can’t milk without alfalfa hay. Their cows have maintained high productivity on substitutes like corn silage.

Jim Ahlem, dairy producer from Hilmar, Calif., still uses alfalfa hay and has enough to take him to the end of May. Most of it comes from the central valley of California where he farms, but he still had to pay more than $300 per ton.

California wasn’t hit by drought last year, which helped keep supplies on hand, but it was a different story in the south central U.S.

“I know some guys from Texas who were buying (alfalfa hay) from Nevada,” Ahlem says.