Halina Palmer, of Boulder, was forced to walk in the rain Thursday morning while visiting Steamboat Springs. Her car had broken down the night before, but luckily, she had plenty of rain gear after several days of camping in North Routt.

Photo by John F. Russell

Halina Palmer, of Boulder, was forced to walk in the rain Thursday morning while visiting Steamboat Springs. Her car had broken down the night before, but luckily, she had plenty of rain gear after several days of camping in North Routt.

Unrelenting rain ratchets up pressure on farmers, ranchers

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— The more than seven-tenths of an inch of rain that had collected in rain gauges within 2 miles of Steamboat Springs before 7 a.m. Thursday meant that most parts of the city had seen 1.2 inches or more in two days. And that was before the rain stopped for the morning.

City dwellers are saying “Enough already!” But the real pain is being felt by farmers and ranchers who depend upon the valley’s grass hay crop to make their world go around.

“I’ve talked to any number of local producers who are feeling the pressure right now,” CSU Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said Thursday. “I think everybody uses Labor Day as a marker. You’d better be darn near done, if not completely done with haying, by now. But there are significant numbers of hay producers all over the county who say they aren’t even halfway done.”

The rain clouds cleared up at midday Thursday in Steamboat, but a period of showers resumed in the afternoon before clearing again by 4 p.m. And although meteorologists are predicting mostly sunny conditions for portions of the three-day Labor Day weekend, Steamboat-based Mike Weissbluth, of www.snowalarm.com, said there’s a chance of a fast-moving storm cruising through the area again late in the day Saturday or early Sunday.

“Another strong front is forecast to clip Colorado and bring cooler temperatures and showers for much of the day Sunday, with snow showers likely at the highest elevations of the northern Colorado Rockies,” Weissbluth reported. “Behind this front, much drier air, first from the northwest early in the week, and then from the southwest by midweek, will invade our area.”

The return of dry air to the region should interrupt the monsoonal pattern and bring the valley “beautiful late summer weather for the duration of the workweek,” he added.

Normal August rainfall here is 1.6 inches, and Steamboat rain gauges have seen close to 4.6 inches, according to information collected by the National Weather Service Center.

Any worries about the extreme drought that plagued Northwest Colorado in summer 2012 have been soaked. It was early in summer 2012 that range management specialists cautioned livestock producers they might get no more than three weeks of grazing on public lands, and agricultural economists were urging cow/calf operators to sell off their mature cows and put all the marbles on the genetics in their heifers because of the cost of hay had been thoroughly doused.

“That is not an issue now,” Hagenbuch said. “Anecdotally, I had to dig a 2-foot-deep trench in my yard to do some work, and it’s wet all the way down. Anyone who goes to dig a posthole is going to find the same thing.”

As recently as summer 2013, just less than 2 percent of Colorado was drought free, but this week, the National Drought Monitor is reporting that more than 60 percent of the state is drought free, including all of Routt County. And the eastern one-third of Moffat County, to the west, is drought free. However, much of Moffat still is rated “abnormally dry.” Extreme drought persists only in a pocket of Southeast Colorado.

This month’s rainfall isn’t all that’s out of the ordinary this August. Collecting data from its SNOTEL sites all across the West, which typically measure snowpack, the Natural Resources Conservation Service confirmed Thursday that throughout much of the Intermountain West, average daily temperatures are between 5 and 10 degrees below normal during the past seven day. And that includes about seven SNOTELs in the Park Range close to Steamboat and a couple more SNOTELs in South Routt.

Hagenbuch said hay growers are faced with two sets of problems. After a forecast of several days of dry conditions a little more than a week ago, many cut a significant amount of hay, only to have the forecast change seemingly overnight. That hay now is soaking wet, a condition that could lead to it becoming moldy if farmers and ranchers can't get it dried out.

And the sodden ground isn’t helping. It’s making it more challenging to fluff up what they have with a tractor implement referred to as a tedder, which typically speeds the drying process.

The other challenge is the uncut hay — now 4 feet tall, though some of it was knocked to the ground by Wednesday’s hail storm — won't rise again. And even the hay that was missed by the hail is at risk.

Hagenbuch explained that the deeper that uncut hay goes into September, the more likely it becomes that the plant’s roots begin signaling that they need the nutrition stored in the slender hay leave to make it through the winter. Once that process of channeling nutrition to the roots is underway, the nutritional value of the hay as livestock feed is in decline, he said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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