Steamboat Springs Routt County still ranks among the top two hay-producing counties in Colorado. But the changing landscape is making it tougher for the county's smallest hay producers to do business.
About 10 hay growers and other interested people met at the Routt County Courthouse last week to explore the possibility of establishing a hay marketing cooperative here. By the end of the evening, a less formal hay marketing association seemed more likely than a formal cooperative. However, there was general agreement around the table that small hay producers could become more profitable by working together.
"My biggest goal is to get a better handle on market prices of certain classes of hay and to share that information," C.J. Mucklow said. Mucklow is director of the Routt County CSU Extension office. Establishing a cooperative would allow hay producers to standardize pricing without being susceptible to charges of price fixing, Mucklow said.
Mucklow said that in 1999, the most current year for which he has figures, neighboring Jackson County produced the most hay in the state 126,500 tons, all of it grass hay, as opposed to alfalfa. Routt County ranked second with 73,000 tons.
Significantly, the yield per acre is higher in Routt County than in Jackson County. Routt county hay producers took 2.1 tons per acre off of 35,000 acres, while their counterparts on the other side of the Park Range produced 1.6 tons per acre on 80,000 acres.
Moffat County, with just 12,000 acres, and relatively few irrigated acres, produced 24,000 tons of hay in 1999.
The county's largest hay producers were noticeably absent from this week's meeting. Doug DeCosta said that's because large producers already have well established markets and have no need to become involved in a cooperative.
DeCosta, who lives in South Routt County, has been in the hay business for decades. He's not so much a producer as he is a distributor. DeCosta noted that hay growers tend to be an independent lot, and suggested that establishing a co-op would be "an uphill battle."
Instead, he urged those at the meeting to form an association and get closer to small consumers of hay in the valley by educating horse owners about proper equine nutrition.
Mark Marchus, who cuts his own hay and that of two other neighbors, said he's looking for a reliable customer on the Front Range who would take his hay year after year. His chances of finding that customer would be improved if he could team with another small producer to fill an entire tractor trailer with hay destined for eastern Colorado, he said.
Hay prices in the Yampa Valley last year were about $120 a ton. By putting together a full truckload of high quality hay, Marchus figures, small growers could turn the corner.
"That way, we start to bring down the trucking price," Marchus said. "If we can get $165 a ton, we've done it. But we need to get a truckload to do it."
Shipping hay to the Front Range costs about $2 per loaded mile, resulting in expenses of $600 to $800.
Lambert Orton, who harvests hay south of Steamboat, said he's familiar with successful hay cooperatives in the state of Iowa.
"I think it's a great idea," Orton said. "I think it would be not only fun, but I think it's almost mandatory."
Orton said his goal is to avoid slipping into a "lemonade stand" style of doing business, selling three bales of hay at a time.
All of those who gathered at the courthouse agreed that the growing trend toward 35-acre ranchettes in locations that were once intact hay meadows of several hundred acres, is making the prospect of "custom cutting" hay fields for hire almost not feasible.
"It's happening more and more all over the state," DeCosta said. "You see a 35-acre ranchette with a big house, a trampoline out back and two horses."
Marchus explained that it would take him almost a full day to trailer and set up his equipment in a new field. When those fields are only 30 acres, the effort isn't justified. Add to that the increased difficulties of dealing with many different property owners, and Marchus said he's no longer willing to custom cut small parcels.
Ironically, people with small acreages of hay are eager to have their crop harvested so they can legitimately claim the benefits of agricultural property tax classification.
Ellen Stein of the Community Ag Alliance said she's working with landowners in an effort to reconfigure 35-acre parcels for hay production.
"That's part of what my job is," she said.
Mucklow said that, in order to be successful, a hay cooperative would need to control 20 to 40 percent of the local market. Even more importantly, producers would have to work well together.
"The members actually have to be willing to share information to make it a success," he said.
At the very least, Mucklow would like to establish a Web page where potential customers would see at a glance what kind of hay is available in the valley.