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For the week of May 9 through May 15, 2001

Lack of water will hurt alfalfa harvest

Shortage means higher hay prices

Express Staff Writer

Some local farmers are expecting to lose a third of their usual production of alfalfa in this poor water year. But that doesn’t translate into a 33 percent loss of income on this crop—it means worse.

Carey farmer Shirl Reay, for example, predicts farmers who draw their water from the Fish Creek Reservoir won’t get a third cutting and only a "so-so" second cutting. "So-so" means instead of a farmer’s getting two tons of hay per acre, he might get a ton and a quarter.

Adding to the loss of income from an expected low yield, there is a further loss because of the quality of the alfalfa. Reay said a second cutting typically sells for less because it doesn’t have the nutrients of either a first or third cutting.

In a normal water year, many Carey farmers start the growing season, as Reay does, with alfalfa, a perennial that comes up year after year for as many as four or five years.

Reay said that in the Carey area three cuttings are the best an alfalfa farmer can expect. Further south, around Twin Falls and Jerome, a farmer often can make four cuttings.

If the farmer also has stock, such as the beef cattle Reay raises, water must also be used on their pastures. So, already the farmer is heavily using whatever water he has.

By the time the alfalfa season is over, in August if enough water is available for a third cutting, a farmer may choose to raise a crop of barley, wheat or potatoes ¾ if there is water.

After that crop is harvested, the growing season is over, since water is gone and killing frosts are likely.

At that point, an alfalfa farmer will turn his stock out to glean the fields, if he has stock and if he hasn’t already done so.

That growing season is, of course, hypothetical and shouldn’t be taken as exact as other businesses’ production cycles. Not all farmers in Carey grow alfalfa, not all farmers in Carey have stock, and not all farmers in Carey use the same reservoir.

But the hypothetical growing season should give a fairly good idea of what kind of trouble a low-water year can make for a Carey farmer. As Reay described it, this year’s shortage of water means he can expect a poor second cutting of alfalfa and no third cutting.

That in turn has the effect of how much alfalfa hay he will have available for his beef cattle this winter.

In "putting pencil to paper," as Reay phrases it, having less water also means he has to use more water early in the season to make sure his grazing pastures will be sufficiently lush for his cattle in the event that alfalfa production is even less than expected.

But even this equation of water plus crop plus stock equals profitability doesn’t tell the whole story of what can be expected. Other variables need to be added.

In their calculations, farmers also need to include the possibility of a killing frost in June or early fall. They need to know the cost of fertilizer and herbicides. They need to predict their machinery costs, including fuel. They need to know commodity prices.

If there is any good news in any of this, it is that the expected short harvest will likely drive the price of alfalfa up.

Lewis Eilers, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said he has heard "rumors of $150 hay." A ton of hay last year was going for $70 to $80.

Another help may be Idaho Power’s offer to pay farmers money for idling their irrigation pumps during the summer. Farmers who use pumps, Reay said, will probably take advantage of the offer by not using the electricity they would normally use to water less productive fields.

For those who get their water from the Fish Creek Reservoir, the buyback program won’t help since they use gravity flow for their water.

The consequences of a low-water year will affect not just the farmers. It will affect migrant seasonal farmworkers and consumers too.

An Associated Press article out of Twin Falls reported that farmworkers can expect "a drought-induced double whammy"—fewer acres planted and a shorter growing season.

Greg Rogers, labor market analyst for the Idaho Department of Labor, said Lincoln County’s jobless rate rose by more than half a percentage point from March to April. He attributed this to a "disaster-level drought cut" in farm employment.

The consequence for consumers is uncertain until it happens, but if the ratio of demand and supply means anything, consumers may not be paying higher prices for milk.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, milk production was up 7.8 percent in the first quarter of 2001. In the first quarter of 2000, Idaho cows produced 1.68 million pounds of milk. In the first quarter of 2001, the number was 1.82 million pounds.

But those figures do not take into account the cost of this year’s alfalfa crop. When that is factored in, the cost of hay may outweigh the increase in milk production.

In all this uncertainty, one thing is certain for the farmers drawing water off Fish Creek Reservoir. They need water to succeed, and the dam is only half full—or almost empty, depending on one’s state of mind.


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