Western hay supplies are at their lowest level since the mid-1950s, and prices are headed for record highs.

Several factors are contributing to the high prices:

The widely expected boom in acres planted to alfalfa didn’t happen in California this spring. In fact, California and Idaho alfalfa acreage is down 10,000 acres from a year ago while the acreage in six other Western states is unchanged from a year ago.

The dairy industry is growing in the West. The USDA milk production report released in October showed that cow numbers for the third quarter — July through September — were up by 4 percent in California compared to the same time a year ago. That’s an increase of 62,000 cows. Idaho has seen a 4.5 percent increase, or 16,000 head and New Mexico has seen a 5 percent increase, or 13,000 head during that same time.

In addition, a dry year, a lack of alfalfa production from the Klamath growing region, and decreased production in Oregon and Washington areas where producers sold water to power companies for energy production, are all contributing to the tight supply.

The USDA reports that Western region hay inventories are almost half the previous year’s level. The largest percentage decline in hay supply was in Wyoming where summer inventories declined by 79 percent. Other states reporting big declines in their hay supplies include: Montana, down 58 percent; Nevada, 61 percent; Colorado, 59 percent; New Mexico, 59 percent; California 53 percent; and Utah 37 percent.

Given the tight supply situation, prices for dairy quality alfalfa hay at the end of October were running between $135 to $146 per ton in the Chino Valley and $150 to $175 per ton in the Western Fresno reporting area. That’s an increase of $30 to $50 more per ton compared to a year ago. And the USDA market reporting service has been reporting price increases almost every week.

For producers thinking of switching acres into alfalfa production, Rick Staas of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association offers this reminder: price spikes usually are short-lived and cycles of increase are shorter still with downturns lasting longer than in years past.

Seth Hoyt, California Agricultural Statistics Service says the alfalfa hay market in California and the West should remain strong for the rest of 2001 and into early 2002.

California Farm Bureau Federation, USDA