Colorado Parks and Wildlife harvests its own hay south of Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Colorado Parks and Wildlife harvests its own hay south of Steamboat

Who knew that the Steamboat Springs office of Colorado Parks and Wildlife had its own hay-growing operation?

In early summer 2017, with precious little rain and warm days, mowing and baling of dry land hay is underway early in the upper Yampa Valley. CPW wildlife technician Tyler Jacox was out in a small field on the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area south of town June 25, mowing hay on a hilly field overlooking the Yampa River with the ski trails in Priest Creek looming in the background.

"It's usually right around the Fourth of July when we cut our stuff," Jacox said, "but it's a little early this year."

CPW grows a mix of dry land and irrigated hay on about 40 acres and keeps the harvest in house.

"All the stuff we cut at Chuck Lewis, that goes to our guys that have horses for work purposes," he said. "They need horses  to do (bighorn) sheep surveys in Zirkel (Wilderness Area) and for checking hunters."

The typical CPW harvest of about 1,900 small bales keeps the horses in good condition.

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Colorado State University agriculture extension agent Todd Hagenbuch confirmed this week that the dry land (unirrigated) hay harvest has begun earlier than typical in 2017, but not unusually early. He said many local farmers and ranchers try to mow and bale their grass hay when it's at its peak nutritional value. Others may let it grow a little longer to increase tonnage.

"The plant doesn't know the calendar as much as it knows where it is in its growth cycle," Hagenbuch explained. "After it starts to seed, it starts pulling back energy (into the roots) preparing to go dormant."

After a very wet month of May followed by a dry month of June (.33 inches of rain in Steamboat thus far compared to a normal monthly total of 1.59), grass hay farmers are seizing the favorable weather and getting ready to harvest.

Jacox said that's precisely why he was out in the field at the "The Chuck" on a Sunday afternoon driving the CPW's bright orange tractor.

While irrigated hay fields on the valley floor have continued to grow and have yet to go to seed, Hagenbuch said a number of Routt County alfalfa hay growers have also started to mow. That trend started after three successive nights in June when low temperatures came perilously close to freezing.

"Two weeks ago, we had two or three nights when there was frost in places," he said. "I didn't see any sign of long-term damage, which means (the alfalfa flowers) should have snapped out of it. But any number of people had the alfalfa nicked back far enough they went ahead and cut it, I think in hopes of getting a second crop."

The National Weather Service reports that its weather observer in Steamboat recorded overnight lows of 30 degrees both June 13 and 14, followed by a low of 35 degrees June 15.

It remains to be seen if the seasonal summer monsoons will reverse the current dry spell in July.  In the meantime, farmers and ranchers will begin making hay while the sun shines.

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