Alfalfa acreage dries up as dairy herds grow

A swather sits at the edge of an alfalfa field outside of Kingsburg.(Kenny Goodman)

Valley dairy farmers pull out alfalfa fields in favor of more profitable nut crops as water restrictions and imports rise

TULARE COUNTY – Alfalfa fields are drying up in Tulare and Kings Counties as water becomes more restricted yet dairy herds continue to grow.

Since the 1920s, the alfalfa hay acreage in California has fluctuated but has trended down from nearly 1.2 million acres in 2001 down to 450,000 acres in 2022. The acreage is influenced by profitability of alternative crops, the demand for alfalfa hay by the state’s dairy herd, which consumes about 70% of the supply, and by water constraints.

Tulare and Kings County alfalfa acreage has seen a major decline during that same time period. Tulare County farmers in 1999 planted 103,000 acres of alfalfa but by 2010 it was down to 90,000 acres. The latest figures in 2022 saw only 28,900 acres in the ground. A similar pattern was seen in Kings County, another big dairy county.

Less alfalfa is concerning news for dairy counties like Kings and Tulare, which are increasing the sizes of their herds by 30% and 44% respectively. Kings County’s herd was 130,000 in 2000 climbing to 170,000 as of 2022. In Tulare County the number of cattle and calves has grown from 500,000 in 2020 to 720,000 as of 2022, according to the crop reports.

While many dairy farmers have traditionally grown alfalfa nearby, much of alfalfa these days is imported from other states rather than home grown. More dairy farmers have become nut farmers in the past five years.

As of 2023, statewide figures show California counted about 500,000 acres of this premium hay, less than half its high in previous years. Lack of water to grow this thirsty crop is considered key. Still, much of California-grown alfalfa hay is exported to Japan and China rather than used by the state’s dairy farms.

Alfalfa was introduced to California in the 1850s from Chile. The varieties imported were well adapted to California’s climate and alfalfa soon became a major crop, especially on irrigated land.

Alfalfa prices have taken a wild ride according to USDA, rising to $290 a ton in 2023 but now costing about $195 a ton. Alfalfa is considered valuable for fiber, energy, protein, minerals/vitamins, as a rumen buffer, and for improved animal health.

Imports are crushing Calif. wine market

Central Valley wine grape growers are complaining that the state’s biggest bulk wine processors like Gallo continue to import cheap foreign grapes even as small Valley grape growers are struggling.

Lodi Winegrape Commission member Stuart Spencer writes that, according to the Gomberg Fredrikson Report, nearly 68 million gallons of foreign bulk wine was imported by California wineries in 2022. “And no one is talking about it.”

Spencer continues, “Over the past couple of months, countless industry presentations have discussed the slowing wine market, the anti-alcohol movement, how young people aren’t drinking wine, and the excess inventory of California-grown wine. We’ve been told that potentially 400,000 tons of grapes were left on the vine last harvest. Growers have been told they need to remove thousands of vineyard acres to balance supply with demand. But no one is mentioning that California’s largest grape buyers also imported the equivalent of 400,000 tons of grapes in 2022.”

The importation of foreign bulk wine began in the late 1990s when a rapidly growing wine market looked overseas to fill demand. That trend slowed significantly in the early 2000s as California vineyard plantings exceeded demand, but began to pick back up around 2006 and has grown steadily ever since.

Much of the imported bulk wine is ending up in plain sight on the grocery store shelves, labeled as “American” wine. Federal TTB (Tax & Trade Bureau) regulations allow for up to 25% foreign (non-US) wine to be blended with California wine and legally labeled “American.”

Valley wine grape farmers, such as those in Lodi, would like this rule to change so consumers can know if they are buying 100% home grown.

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