Limited water supplies are reducing California's crop production and spurring forage prices to record levels. (Photo: Catherine Merlo)
High milk prices bring relief, but feed prices, especially for forages, are escalating. Is there hope from El Nino?
In California, the corn has been planted, cows are making milk, and dairy producers are finally back in the black with $20 milk prices.
But first and foremost on every farmer’s mind is the drought, now in its third straight year. Feed prices, especially for forages, are escalating as limited water supplies reduce crop production in the nation’s No. 1 farm state.
"Everybody’s relieved with the high milk prices, but the drought is a huge concern," says Devin Gioletti, who, with his family, operates a 2,200-acre farm and 2,200-cow dairy near Turlock, Calif., south of Modesto.
"It’s becoming more expensive and difficult to obtain forages," says Joel Karlin, market analyst with Western Milling, near Goshen, Calif.
Karlin says hay prices have reached all-time highs of $360-$370 per ton. Corn silage is close to record levels at $65-$70 per ton. Prices for almond hulls, a common feed component at Central California dairies, have risen to $200 per ton, close to their highest-ever level.
The drought has spurred changes in the feed rations at many California dairies. Many producers have removed expensive alfalfa hay from their herd rations. To use less water in their fields, some opted to plant grain sorghum instead of corn for silage to feed their herds.
Those who depend on groundwater are closely monitoring their wells. "I lost one well, and lowered a couple of others [to deeper pumping levels]," says Tulare dairy producer Tom Barcellos.
Dairy producer Tom Barcellos of Tulare, Calif., foresees forage prices becoming "ridiculously high" as the state's drought continues.
Normally, some 80% of Barcellos’ water supplies comes via surface deliveries from the federally owned Friant Canal. But federal water allotments this year are at zero, leaving Barcellos entirely dependent on groundwater. He fallowed 160 acres of corn and milo this year as a result. "But I was fortunate enough to buy additional hay early and I bought forage from a neighbor," he says. "I’ve got enough to get me through the season."
Looking ahead, Barcellos says "forages will be ridiculously high," and his biggest concern will be how much water will be left in groundwater wells come October and November -- just before California’s typical rainy season begins.
Farther north near Modesto, where farmers depend more on surface water than underground wells, a new development has worsened this year’s drought for many farmers like the Giolettis.