Early summer, scarce water pose decisions for Routt County hay growers

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— Farmers and ranchers welcomed the cold moisture that brought 0.17 inches of rain to Steamboat Springs overnight Wednesday and whitewashed the bald forehead of Storm Peak. There just wasn’t enough of it.

“This year, they need any kind of moisture they can get,” Routt County Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said. Seventeen one-hundredths “of an inch is great. It’s better than no rain. Unfortunately, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need right now. We need to measure moisture right now in inches.”

Steamboat weather observer Art Judson said Thursday that he has recorded 0.62 inches of precipitation in May at his weather station between downtown and the ski area. That leaves a little less than a week to catch up to the average May precipitation of 2.08 inches.

In a typical month of May, a little snow on Mount Werner translates into cold rain at lower elevations and hits the sweet spot for the grass hay that dominates the meadows of the Yampa Valley. This year is a little different.

“The soil temperatures have climbed to the point that the growth pattern is different this year,” Hagenbuch said.

The hay is further along in its growth cycle than normal, and farmers and ranchers are scrambling to irrigate earlier than they typically would. Water is in the creeks and rivers now, but it won’t be for much longer.

If there’s a silver lining, Hagenbuch said, it’s that calving season was easy this spring and the fences didn’t need mending because of the scarcity of the snowpack. That gives hay growers more time to monitor their irrigation ditches.

With the hay growing, ranchers also are having to pull cattle off the meadows earlier than usual if they want to have any harvest at all. That reality means they have to move their livestock onto pasture that isn’t in prime condition.

The chain of events could cause people to confront some tough decisions later in the summer, Hagenbuch said. Dryland farmers may have to weigh the cost of diesel fuel for their tractors against potentially weak yields and decide whether to cut hay at all. Similarly, some ranchers may have to balance the cost of trucking cattle to better pasture if they can locate it, against selling off a portion of their herd.

Hagenbuch and fellow Western Slope extension agents were working hard this week on a list of about 10 strategic options to help guide ranchers.

A trip up the Yampa Valley right now is enlightening, Hagenbuch said. Above Stagecoach, there isn’t much water remaining in the Yampa as irrigators take what is available.

“Between Yampa and Phippsburg, the Yampa (River) is almost nonexistent,” he said.

He is wary that a little later in the summer, the return flows from hay fields that replenish the river in most seasons won’t restore enough water to the stream for each successive hay grower down the chain to get the water their fields need.

Meanwhile, hay growers who hung onto the excess from last year’s bumper crop, rather than selling it, have a cushion to help get them through a summer of low streamflows.

“We’ll see what shakes out next month,” Hagenbuch said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com

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