The Nereson family of Hay--den can claim the best hay in the Yampa Valley.
Heather Nereson, 9, was crowned the grand champion in two classes of the hay competition at the Routt County Fair. She won for her second-cut alfalfa bale and grass-alfalfa-mix bale.
Ron Nereson said Heather was just as involved in the cutting of the hay as she was in the selection. "She sits in there with her old dad, and she knows which one she wants," he said.
Heather's knack for picking good hay has paid off.
Sharon Nereson, Heather's mom, said she is glad the hay won because now they have an analysis of their hay and can tell buyers it was tested in a lab to ensure its quality.
"We take great care of our hay," she said. "We like to know the results of the tests so we can tell our customers what kind of hay they're getting."
On Monday, the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office received nine entries for the hay competition.
Extension Service Director C.J. Mucklow said the bales were sent to the University of Nebraska, where they were tested for protein content, feed value, composition, moisture and form. When the results from the tests were returned Wednesday, Mucklow did a visual check of the hay and considered other components before deciding on the best hay in the valley.
A misconception about hay is that the greener it is, the better it is.
"Not true," Mucklow said. "The real value of hay is in its nutritional value. Color really has nothing to do with it."
He said tan or brown hay can have more protein and nutritional value than bright green hay, it's just that most people look at a green bay of hale and think it's fresher.
Still, green sells, Mucklow said.
Mucklow said area ranchers ship their hay all across the nation. He knows people who sell hay to buyers as far away as Florida, Texas and California.
But most Yampa Valley hay goes to buyers on the Front Range.
"We have really developed a reputation for high quality hay," he said.
Mucklow attributes the valley's reputation to the types of grasses that grow here and the good early season weather conditions.
Even though it has rained the past few weeks during some of the cutting time, most people are enjoying bumper harvests. Jim and Jo Stanko said they are finding it hard to put up all of the hay they just cut.
"Our first cutting has almost filled our hay corral. There is just so much hay to store," she said.
Jo Stanko said she had been so busy trying to take care of the first cutting that she didn't have enough time to enter a bale into the fair.
The Stankos, instead of selling their extra hay to people, usually just buy more cattle to take care of the excess, though they do sell some of their hay to people in the valley.
Jo Stanko said the Stankos use different types of hay from different fields and meadows depending on the cow. For example, a cow about to calve will eat different hay than a cow not about to calve, she said.
So what is Mucklow's idea of the perfect bale of hay?
"The perfect bale of hay," he said, "is one that will fit the needs of the horse or the cow the cheapest."