Steamboat Springs There wasn't much good news to share at a drought workshop last week at Olympian Hall. But there was a little.
"The frogs are singing," rancher Jim Stanko confided. "I always know the soil is warm enough for the hay to grow when the frogs start singing."
Stanko is among the fortunate hay producers in Colorado this year; he is irrigating 130 acres of hay out of the main stem of the Yampa River on his ranch just west of Steamboat Springs on County Road 33.
He began putting water on the fields just a few days before Memorial Day, and already, the hay is brushing his calf. Stanko even expects to cut a crop from his 75 acres of dryland hay.
Not everyone will be so fortunate this year.
The dwindling snowpack in the Yampa River drainage is just 5 percent of normal. And streamflows on area rivers are closely tracking historic graphs that chart the record drought year of 1977.
Still, water users in Northwest Colorado have the best moisture in the entire state.
That won't be enough to save all of the local crops. Marsha Daughenbaugh of the Farm Service Agency office here is working with local farmers and ranchers to see if they qualify for federal programs intended to offset some of their drought losses.
"We've heard a lot of sad stories coming out of our four-county region," Daughenbaugh said. "There's no hay growth."
Daughenbaugh's office works with farmers and ranchers in Routt, Jackson, Grand and Summit counties.
She said hay producers have until Sept. 1 to apply for non-insured crop assistance for 2003. About 220 people applied for the same assistance last year. The benefits are calculated through the use of a complicated formula. Essentially, it offsets a portion of the gap between the actual crop yield and the yield commensurate with a 50 percent loss.
In other cases, she can offer low-interest (3.25 percent) loans to farmers who cannot obtain credit. Another program allows ranchers to defer taxes if they have to sell cattle early because of inadequate feed supply.
Kurt Frentress is among the ranchers who expects to lose a portion of his crops this year. That's due in part to the fact that he farms almost entirely dryland alfalfa, with only a little hay under irrigation. Frentress grows hay near Hayden.
"A lot of it we're not even going to cut," Frentress said. "It's completely burned up. This is the worst I've seen in 25 years."
Frentress declined to say how many acres of dryland alfalfa he has. But he usually expects to get 1.5 tons of hay per acre. The fields he does cut this year will probably yield less than half a ton.
Like Stanko, Larry Monger is one of the local agriculturists who is fortunate to be irrigating his hay meadows out of the main stem of a major river. Monger's ranch is on the lower Elk River. He expects to have a normal hay crop this year but doubts he'll be able to flood his fields in late summer after his hay has been cut. Typically, he would turn his heifers out to graze in the regenerating hay stubble.
"The lower Elk has ample water, but we didn't have any high water this year," Monger said. "Right now we're at river flows that are like mid-July."
Monger would typically begin flooding his hay meadows in mid-May, alternating between a week with water on the fields and a week off. This year, he started irrigating in mid-April.
Frentress said it is the relative success of dryland hay growers that drives hay prices. That's because they represent the variable in the market place. In a wet year, there will be an abundance of hay from unirrigated fields and hay prices will be low. In years like this, a severe drop in hay from unirrigated fields will drive prices up.
This is the second year in three that Frentress has been unable to produce enough hay to be able to sell the crop after he feeds his own livestock. He usually feeds 500 tons of hay to his cattle and sells the balance.
In 2000, he experienced the worst local drought he had ever seen. He was able to sell hay last year, but this year, it's out of the question.
"I'm not going to be alone," he said. In fact, he said many local ranchers will probably be faced with three options to feed their livestock next winter: buying more hay, switching to a mixture of grain and hay or shipping cattle to slaughter early.
"None of them are very palatable," Frentress said.
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