Community Agriculture Alliance: Make hay while the sun shines
July 17, 2014
Doesn't it take your breath away? You see it when you come off of Rabbit Ears Pass. You see it up Elk River. You see it in South Routt. You see it on the Williams Fork. And you see it near Hayden.
There are thousands of acres of freshly cut hay fields, and it seems like millions of bales covering them. I look forward to it every year.
Hay and alfalfa are two of our major agricultural commodities in Routt County. More than 37,000 acres produce more than 60,000 tons annually. When the weather cooperates, some of the finest hay in the nation is produced right here in our valley. Thanks to the cool evenings and not-so-hot days, our grass is high in protein and low in weeds.
Dryland hay and alfalfa are at the mercy of Mother Nature, relying 100 percent on ground moisture from snowmelt and rainfall. Harvest on these two commodities usually starts the middle of June in west Routt, working its way north and south for the next four weeks. Decisions about when to cut hay are dependent on frost, daytime temperatures and condition of the plants.
The process to "put-up" irrigated hay starts early each spring, usually as soon as the snow melts from the meadows.
Dead grasses and other vegetative matter need to be cleared from ditches. The waterways need to be checked for leakage issues. Head gates and weirs need to be repaired and calibrated to assure accuracy.
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The actual irrigation practices require daily water changes that are made manually, usually with a good shovel and a strong back.
Neighbors take turns applying water to their irrigated meadows. This is because each ranch who has a water right legally must share it with other ranches on that ditch that also have a water right.
Most ranchers stop irrigating seven to 10 days before they pull their hay equipment into the fields. This allows the fields to dry out and the grass to have a final growth spurt.
The drier the grasses, the easier they are to cut and process. Although irrigated hay normally is harvested during July and August, rain or snow may force later harvesting. This hay may produce higher yields, but with a lower nutritional value.
The size of the bales is determined by individual ranching operations. A bale of hay is the same commodity whether it weighs 65 pounds or 1,800 pounds, or is rectangular or round.
Ranchers decide the type of hay equipment to purchase depending on how they plan to feed or sell their hay.
Because of our high-altitude short growing seasons, Routt County ranchers work from dawn to dusk to get their hay mowed, baled and stacked before the frosts return. The phrase "Make Hay While the Sun Shines" easily could have been coined in the Yampa Valley because of the need to take advantage of every daylight hour during the summer months.
Good stewardship of our Routt County agriculture is vital to the continuing beauty and economic success of our area. Community Agriculture Alliance salutes each of our local ranchers and farmers for the role you play in protecting our future — and for taking my breath away.
Marsha Daughenbaugh is the executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance.