Rolling in the hay

Outlook good for 2003 crop

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— Routt County hay farmers have a chance to put up an outstanding crop this summer if monsoon rains don't interfere. But last year's drought is still affecting the industry.

"It looks like a lot of hay is going to be put up in the country this year," Doug DeCosta said. "A lot of that is for sale rather than being put back into livestock."

With reduced livestock herds, an additional flood of high quality hay will be put on the marketplace.

DeCosta harvests a modest amount of hay on his place in South Routt, but his primary business, Colorado Hay Company, brokers truckloads of premium hay bound for thoroughbred horse farms. He said during the drought, ranchers reduced their cattle herds because they couldn't afford to feed them hay that soared as high as $200 a ton. In places in southern Colorado and northeast Utah, cattle herds were reduced by as much as 50 percent. They haven't been rebuilt yet, and that means a rancher who might typically put 200 tons of hay into his own livestock is seeking to sell his crop instead this summer.

It's too early to say for certain, but the price of hay may correct to levels between $110 and $140 a ton this year.

Most of the prime grass hay in Routt County is destined for the burgeoning equine market on Colorado's Front Range. "There's plenty of competition," DeCosta said.

Jean Peterson of the Community Agriculture Alliance said cold, wet weather that prevailed in Northwest Colorado in late May and early June provided the ideal start for mountain hay meadows. And unlike last summer, there was no late frost.

"The yield per acre this year is much higher," Peterson said. "We didn't have that freeze that seemed to stunt the growth (last year)."

Extension Director C. J. Mucklow said the prolonged cold spring translated into a good crop for Routt County farmers who can't draw upon irrigation to grow their hay.

"The dryland hay crop was outstanding," Mucklow said.

Last summer, many farmers in west and south Routt didn't even bother to cut their dryland hay.

Mucklow said the irrigated hay is just beginning to be cut, and he expects strong yields.

"I would anticipate we'll have surplus hay," Mucklow said.

The most common sight in the area hay meadows this month will be the large round bales that are convenient to handle with machinery and easy to feed to livestock. But the highest priced hay will come in small rectangular bales that are more practical for handling by horse owners. Buyers of horse hay are looking for bales that are bright green in color and weigh 60 to 75 pounds, Mucklow said.

DeCosta said many of the Rocky Mountain states -- Idaho, Wyoming and Montana -- are having good growing seasons. Along the southern Front Range of Colorado, the turnaround has been particularly dramatic.

"Around Colorado Springs and Westcliffe they have hay they never even dreamed of the last five years," DeCosta said.

The abundant crop this year means reduced demand and lower prices, but there's nothing unusual about that state of affairs.

"That's supply and demand," Mucklow said.


--To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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