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Recent Storms Fail to Break California’s Drought

April 7, 2014
By: Catherine Merlo, Dairy Today Western and Online Editor google + 
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Water shortages will limit alfalfa hay quality and availability in California this year. (Photo: Catherine Merlo),  

Continued water shortages mean unplanted and under-irrigated crops ahead for the state’s farmers.

The welcomed but few storms that dropped rain and snow over California during late March and early April were too little and too late to lift the state out of its third consecutive year of drought.

"The storms only got us from horrible to really bad," says Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

While the late-season storms helped increase California’s mountain snowpack to 32% -- up from 25% in January – the state’s precipitation for the season remains at about 50% of average. Major reservoirs hold only 50% of their normal levels.

The two major suppliers of surface water, the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project, haven’t budged from their earlier announcements that they’ll deliver zero allocations this year. The CVP is California’s single largest supplier of irrigation water, accounting for 25% of the state’s water use, says Kranz.

That means farmers, livestock ranchers, dairies and others still face water shortages this year. As a result, significant amounts of farm acreage are still expected to go unplanted in 2014 in the nation's top agricultural state. How much, however, remains uncertain. California typically accounts for some 8 million acres of irrigated farmland, and some estimates project at least 10% -- or 800,000 acres – will lie fallow this year. The San Joaquin Valley’s Westside, a large farming area west of Fresno, will be hit particularly hard, since it typically relies on federal water deliveries. The Westside is a major producer of processing tomatoes, onions, lettuce, garlic and cantaloupes.

Diversified farmer Joel Ackerknecht thinks fallowed acreage predictions are exaggerated and that the reality will be closer to 200,000 acres. "Farmers may project more fallowed acres because they tend to see things in a worse-case scenario," says Ackerknecht, who grows almonds, alfalfa hay and other crops near Buttonwillow, Calif., at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

Even so, as California’s rainy season winds down, no one doubts the prolonged drought will drive cutbacks in crop production. USDA forecast significant production cuts for several California crops in its March 31 Prospective Plantings Report. Those California reductions include:
• Corn – down 28%
• Cotton – down 35%
• Rice – down 20%
• Wheat down 15%

In addition, farmers have been pulling out older almond trees as a way to deal with the year’s water shortages. Many almond and pistachio orchards also will be under-irrigated, which is likely to have long-term impact, according to Ackerknecht. "People will have to under-water their trees," he says. "And trees don’t come back easily. They’ll survive, but a lot of trees may show problems a year or two from now."

Citrus growers are considering removing fruit from trees to help their groves survive another year of drought, Kranz adds.

Alfalfa hay production estimates vary, but many believe it will drop by about 10% from last year. At 930,000 acres, alfalfa is California’s largest-acreage crop. Already, hay prices have risen to $330 per ton, up from $280 per ton in February. Some project that hay prices could reach $400 per ton this season. While water shortages will limit alfalfa hay quality and availability, another factor is driving hay prices higher.

The state’s dairies are increasing milk production as they seek to take advantage of record milk prices. Strong dairy demand for alfalfa fay, a major feed in herd rations, is helping fuel alfalfa hay’s price climb. With 1.78 million dairy cows to feed, dairies are a major customer of alfalfa hay. High milk prices spurred California’s dairies to boost milk production in February by a whopping 5.3% over year-earlier levels. Output rose to 3.402 billion pounds of milk in February. That’s nearly 1.3 billion pounds more for the month than second-place Wisconsin. 

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