Steamboat Springs Routt County farmers and ranchers are in the unusual position this week of praying for the rain to stop in the midst of a severe drought.
“I’m looking at three weeks of solid haying, weather permitting,” North Routt Rancher Doug Carlson said Thursday. “Usually, I’m a quarter done by now, easily, and we haven’t even started. I’ve been wanting to go for the past 10 days.”
Carlson, who is planning to bale 400 acres of irrigated hay on his ranch on Routt County Road 62 between Clark and Sand Mountain, acknowledged the irony of wishing for the rain that has doused his hay fields to let up. The U.S. Drought Monitor reflects that Northwest Colorado still is suffering severe drought conditions and the grass hay that dominates this part of the state struggled throughout June at a time when it should have been enjoying a growth spurt.
But the timing of recent showers is dicey for farmers hoping to put up hay.
“We haven’t had nearly as much rain as (Steamboat has). The most we’ve gotten at one time is a quarter inch,” Carlson said. “The past 10 days, we’ve had just enough to stop us from doing any haying but really not enough to do us a whole lot of good.”
Routt County CSU Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said the weather forecast that calls for mostly sunny skies for the next six days tells him that a good part of the agricultural community will be out in the fields mowing and baling hay.
“It’s supposed to be partly sunny to mostly clear through Monday,” Hagenbuch said. “I think people are going to be putting up a lot of hay in the next few days. Some people have been getting their (mowed) hay turned just in time for it to get rained on again. Some folks are just waiting to cut it.”
Adding extra urgency to the desire to get the hay crop baled and stacked, Hagenbuch said, is the potential for regrowth in the mowed hay fields to allow cattle ranchers to get their livestock off stressed pastureland and set the cows to grazing in the fields.
“This rain is bringing back regrowth that’s going to make the difference and buy folks some time,” Hagenbuch said.
Carlson agreed. “There’s one pasture I want to get the cows off of, but I don’t have a place to put them until I get the hay off," he said.
Hagenbuch said there is a considerable amount of hay being imported into Northwest Colorado from Montana, North Dakota and southern Canada, but he doesn’t think any of the hay is being fed to cattle yet.
Hay prices here in the summer of 2011 were high because of drought elsewhere, Hagenbuch said, but the imported hay this year typically is $100 a ton costlier than last year. He’s heard that the imported hay is going for $250 to $350 a ton.
Carlson said that when an opportunity arose to purchase 18 tons of Canadian hay at a significantly reduced price, he grabbed the chance to tie it up.
"A neighbor bought (what was supposed to be) some horse hay from Canada, and when it got here, it turned out to have been old hay that had been rained on,” Carlson said.
His neighbor was going to reject it, but rather than ship it back, he let Carlson negotiate with the broker and he picked it up for half-price. Carlson figures if he doesn’t need it late in the fall or winter, he won’t have a problem finding a buyer.
Hagenbuch said the pastures on the hills appear greener thanks to recent rains, but the healthy coloration belies the actual condition of the grass. He urged livestock producers to resist the urge to graze their cattle on the pastures.
“We’re seeing the pasture green up, but we’re not seeing a lot of growth,” Hagenbuch said. “The grass has been so stressed it really needs this recovery period so it comes back next year.” Hagenbuch was among the agriculture advisers at a June 27 meeting who urged livestock producers to consider culling older animals from their herds and selling them early in the season while prices still were strong.
He said he doesn’t have figures on how many cattle have been sold off to area ranches but stands by that advice. Cattle have put on weight since late June, but prices also have gone down, he pointed out.
Carlson said he hasn’t sold any cattle, and because he has never maxed out the number of cattle his ranch can support, he’s “semi-confident” that he can keep his herd intact for another year. Tentatively, he may send cattle to Nebraska this winter to graze on corn stubble.
“The sentiment a lot of us have is, you could pretty much figure out how to get through this year, but if it goes beyond this year, there will be some serious decisions to make," Carlson said.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com