Ranchers hope late hay crop is worth the wait
July 13, 2011
Steamboat Springs — The early arrival of the monsoon rains in the Yampa Valley this summer has postponed haying season and caused area ranchers to utter phrases that rarely pass their lips.
"I'm running out of things to do," Steamboat Springs rancher Jim Stanko said Wednesday morning. "I've cleaned the tractor and the shed as much as I can."
The late spring followed by heavy rains in early July have resulted in a double whammy for hay growers — both alfalfa and grass hay have yet to blossom (a sign of nutritional maturity), and farmers and ranchers would prefer to see a forecast of four or five days of dry weather so the freshly mown hay can quickly dry before they bale it.
Routt County Extension agent CJ Mucklow said western Routt County is typically wrapping up its haying season by now. Mucklow usually cuts his own 10-acre patch of alfalfa in the middle Elk River Valley by July 4.
"If the forecast improves, you'll see things happening quickly," Mucklow said.
Like Stanko, Elk River rancher Larry Monger was itching to get going, but he wasn't complaining either.
"I should be really busy right now," Monger said. "But look at all that hay out there."
When he thinks about the persistent drought in other parts of the country, he anticipates strong prices for the hay he doesn't keep to feed to his own cattle.
Monger usually is extra busy in haying season because he custom cuts hay meadows owned by other people.
Mucklow confirmed that despite a reduction in livestock herds during the past three years because tough economic conditions, prices for Routt County's predominantly grass hay should be favorable this year.
"We should have excess supply and good demand," Mucklow said.
Harvested hay is graded on its measurable protein content; grass hay with more than 13 percent crude protein content is labeled premium. Bales with just 5 to 9 percent protein content are of fair quality. Good hay is somewhere in between.
Devin Murning of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Market News Service in Greeley reported July 7 that the premium small square grass bales favored by many horse owners were selling for $150 to $160 a ton (or $5 to $5.50 a bale) in the mountains and Northwest Colorado. The same quality hay was selling for $230 a ton ($7 to $8 a bale) in Southwest Colorado. It's a sign that the economics of shipping hay to distant livestock owners could be favorable later in the summer.