Steamboat Springs About 50 years ago in Routt County, a plant commonly referred to as whitetop traveled to a local ranch in a bale of hay. Now, whitetop is one of the more wide-spread noxious weeds in the county, taking over about 5,500 acres of native plant habitat.
Agricultural officials are worried a similar incident will happen this summer and urge people feeding hay to any livestock to look for strange-looking plants growing on their land.
This summer is especially important to keep an eye out because of the increased amount of hay brought into the county last year. Hay not grown locally could be carrying noxious weeds that aren't a widespread problem in Routt County, Agricultural Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said.
"Usually, we export more hay than we bring in," he said.
But a late freeze and lack of moisture last year caused dry-land hay production to be off 40 percent to 100 percent and irrigated hay to be off 25 percent to 50 percent, forcing local hay buyers to look elsewhere for their hay, Mucklow said.
Rancher Terry Green trucked in about 180 tons of hay from Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and Kansas for his agricultural operation off County Road 29. That is the most hay he has ever imported. Green was aware of the noxious weed concerns when he bought the hay.
Routt County weed supervisor Matt Custer said everyone who imported hay into the county should be aware of the dangers of the noxious weed.
"There is going to be some hay that has a certain percentage of noxious weed in it," Green said.
The weeds get in the hay because they grow undetected in the fields and are included in the cutting and baling. When fed to livestock, the reproductive qualities of the plants are not broken down in the animal's stomach, causing a danger of the weed spreading, Mucklow said.
Noxious weeds have little or no nutritional value and outcompete native plants used to graze livestock and as food for wildlife. Mucklow said he knows of hay coming in from South Dakota and Montana, and each of those states have large noxious weed problems. Leafy spurge is prominent in South Dakota, while spotted knapweed has demolished 1.5 million acres of grazing land in Montana.
Both of those weeds already have been introduced in Routt County, but they exist only in small numbers along the Yampa River and on highways, Mucklow said. But with the imported hay being fed to livestock on ranches, the chances of those weeds being introduced on grazing land increase.
"We just don't want things to get started here," Mucklow said.
Last year, Routt County taxpayers spent $100,527 on killing noxious weeds in the county, and the 2001 budget for weed control is worth about $130,000, Mucklow said.
"It's a whole lot cheaper to prevent infestations from starting than treating (noxious weeds) when they get here," Mucklow said.
People who own or lease land should bring a sample of any strange-looking plant into the extension office for identification.
"We'd be happy to look at it and if we don't know what it is, we'll call (Colorado State University) to identify it," Mucklow said.