Monday, February 23, 2015

Another Dry Year Could Put a Damper on Alfalfa Acreage

Once again, Valley farmers are being forced to make some tough decisions with the prospects that the devastating drought will head into a fourth year in our Golden (Brown) State.

We are seeing alfalfa growers deciding to make hay on other commodities this season, reports field scout Carlos Silva. He says some growers plowing under older, lesser quality alfalfa fields to make way for other crops, including cotton.

Some growers are plowing under alfalfa fields to save water.
“Alfalfa acreage may take a hit this year,” Carlos says. Generally, growers can get about five years of production out of an alfalfa field. But older fields can yield a lower grade of alfalfa, which will fetch fewer dollars on the market.

It’s easy to understand the rationale. Water is like liquid gold in farm country. It takes lots of water to irrigate alfalfa.

Alfalfa is California’s largest agricultural water user because of its long growing season and vast acreage, which has hovered around the 1 million acre range in recent years.  University of California farm experts estimate alfalfa uses anywhere from 4 million to 5.5 million acre feet of water each season. Cotton and almonds use about half that amount annually. Remember, an acre foot of water is 325,851 gallons – or enough to fill 65,170 five-gallon office coolers.

Of course, we’ve seen this plow down before. Some almond growers last year uprooted aging orchards as a water conservation measure. 
One cotton grower already is pre-irrigating his field.

Carlos says growers are feeling a little more optimistic that they will have access to some water. Remember last year at this time, they were facing the prospects of a zero water allocation. Spring rains eventually boosted that up to 5 percent.

For 2015, the State Water Project’s initial allocation was raised last month from 10 to 15 percent because of the above-average December rainfall. We’ll see how that number plays out after a dry January and mild February so far. Moreover, no one will be surprised when state surveyors come up short during their monthly measurement of the Sierra snowpack in the coming week. For now, everyone is hoping for that March Miracle rain- and snowfall.

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