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NMSU Research: Alfalfa Supplies Can Support New Mexico's Growing Dairy Industry

LAS CRUCES - There's no shortage of fuel to feed New Mexico's growing dairy industry, said a New Mexico State University agricultural economist.


Even if the number of dairy cows in the state increased by 50 percent, there would be enough alfalfa hay to feed them, said Rhonda Skaggs, with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

As of June, dairy producers in New Mexico were milking 217,000 cows, up 17,000 from a year ago. New Mexico's top milk- producing counties are Chaves, Dona Ana and Roosevelt.

The state ranks 12th nationwide in the number of milk cows and second in milk production per cow. The state ranks 11th in total milk production, up from 33rd in 1983.

"New Mexico's dairy industry is growing very rapidly," Skaggs said. "U.S. Department of Agriculture indicators have shown over the last several years that New Mexico's dairy industry has high growth potential. So, we are anticipating that we'll be growing and increasing in milk production and cow numbers in the next few years."

The growth is a result of many factors. "We have a mild climate relative to states that have harsh winters. We also have relatively low land, labor and water costs," she explained. "The industry's regulatory environment is considered more hospitable here than in other states like California."

Skaggs recently evaluated the availability of alfalfa in light of New Mexico's rapidly growing dairy industry. As of August, alfalfa hay harvest acres were expected to reach 270,000, up 5,000 from last year, according to a New Mexico Department of Agriculture farm report.

Skaggs' study was sponsored by the livestock branch of the USDA's Economic Research Service.

"The economic research service has a long-term interest in the overall U.S. dairy industry," Skaggs said. "They look at how the industry is changing and shifting regionally. They're also concerned about what will happen to regional dairy industries given changes in feed supplies and forage availability."

Skaggs did a random telephone survey of 35 dairy producers and 100 New Mexico growers who produce more than 100 acres of alfalfa.

"We were evaluating the quality of alfalfa produced in the state, both from the alfalfa producers' perspective and the dairy producers' perspective," she said.

Skaggs found that alfalfa growers appear to have a long-term commitment to alfalfa production. "We don't see any signs that alfalfa production is going to decrease in this state," she said. "We see our dairy producers growing some of their own hay, accessing hay produced in the state and also having extensive ties to out-of-state producers."

Colorado, Kansas and Texas were frequently mentioned as out- of-state sources for alfalfa hay fed to New Mexico dairy cows, she said.

Skaggs also said that the cost of trucking hay does not appear to be a barrier to the growth of the dairy industry. "Fuel is very cheap at the current time," she said. "There's no indication that the cost of fuel is going to increase and provide an impediment to moving hay."

In addition to studying the economics of agricultural industries in New Mexico, Skaggs teaches classes at NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in agricultural policy.