Alfafa crops may get a boost from dairies, drought

A farmer rotor-tills his field south of Cortez while preparing to plant a grass-alfalfa mixture. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal file photo

A farmer rotor-tills his field south of Cortez while preparing to plant a grass-alfalfa mixture.

Growing demand from dairies and the drought in California and Texas may spur demand for local alfalfa.

"I think we are looking at, if not a stable, a rising market for alfalfa," said Terry Frankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.

Part of the reason is a slow migration of dairies from the West Coast to states like New Mexico and Texas, the final home for much of the alfalfa grown locally.

USDA numbers show that in 2012 the price of alfalfa was 150 percent of the 1997 price, and Frankhauser predicts an accelerated upward trend driven by demand for dairy products like cheese and yogurt.

Recent Census Bureau numbers released in May show the crop is maintaining strong production numbers locally. In 1997, farmers harvested 41,937 acres of alfalfa from 353 farms in Montezuma County.

During the drought year of 2012, Montezuma County farmers harvested 38,881 acres of alfalfa from 495 farms.

The transition to raising alfalfa on more farms throughout the county is likely driven by the high market price and lower input costs compared with a crop like beans, said Paul White, executive director of the local Farm Service Agency.

For example, net income on an acre of alfalfa outpaced an acre of beans by more than double last year, he said.

An acre of alfalfa could gross $360 an acre, while beans were about $150 per acre.

The overarching issue surrounding alfalfa is the crop's high water consumption versus its high output value for dairies.

"[Dairies] really find the best bang for their buck in alfalfa," said Frankhauser.

In Colorado, that demand is rising because of the growth of Leprino Foods, a major cheese manufacturer in Greeley, which absorb the production from 100,000 more dairy cows in the state, he said.