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Green and bear it: Hay harvest plentiful

Joe Dice couldn’t get to the phone Monday morning. He was too busy making his first cut of alfalfa and grass hay and baling it at his place on Silt Mesa.

“Last year, it was really spotty. We hardly had any hay,” said Joe’s wife Jean. “But this year, everybody’s got lots.”

All up and down the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys are the tell-tale signs of hay harvesting. Around the region, haying generally begins at lower elevations like Fruita and De Beque in midspring and travels up the valley to Aspen in early summer.



Dennis Davidson, district conservationist for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in Glenwood Springs, said most hay in the region is a combination of alfalfa and grass. The optimal time for a first cutting is when the alfalfa is at one-tenth bloom.

During a good year, according to Ray Turner, an outfitter in north Rifle, it’s likely that ranchers in low-lying areas will get up to four cuttings. Last year, with little water and severe drought conditions, some hay producers barely got one. Some didn’t get any.



This year, after a parched 2002, regional agricultural land is beginning to rebound.

“I wouldn’t say we’re back to normal, but we’re a lot better than we were this time last year,” said Davidson. “We had a good, moist May, and we’re having a warm June. That’s what we need for a good crop.”

The right recipe

Good moisture, good weather and good water rights – Turner and Davidson both agree the recipe for a good hay year requires all three.

“If you’ve got good water, you’ve got good hay,” said Turner, who recently helped rancher Mike Johnson harvest 40 acres of hay at Johnson’s place north of Rifle. Turner said Johnson has “excellent water” rights, which provided him with a bumper crop for his first cutting.

“So far, Mike’s got a good start,” Turner said.

“How much water you have access to makes a big difference in how well your hay will do,” added Davidson. Producers in Peach Valley and on Silt Mesa with priority irrigation rights are faring well this year, he said.

Hay producers are pleased with their hay harvests so far, but no one is doing cartwheels – yet.

“We still have a ways to go,” said Davidson. “Last year, we lost all our hay reserves. We used up so much just trying to stay ahead. So I imagine ranchers are going to be stockpiling their hay for their own cows and horses.”

The “stock” market

Neither Turner nor Davidson can predict now what the price of hay will be as the season progresses.

“Last year, guys were getting $6 to $7 a bale here,” Turner said. “This year, there’s no telling. I haven’t talked to anybody locally who wants to set their prices yet. It seems like they’re all waiting for somebody to make the first move.”

Hay producers have to contend with several factors in harvesting a successful crop – some of which are left completely up to chance. Turner said once producers decide to cut hay and lay it down in a hayfield, they can only hope it doesn’t rain.

A strong rain shower soaking into cut hay turns it from prime, expensive horse hay to less valuable cow hay overnight. That’s because horses’ digestive systems can’t handle that kind of hay, although cows can.

For a producer counting on selling horse hay, a rainstorm can be the difference between profit and loss.

Turner, who owns nine horses, said in the past eight years he’s never paid more than $4 a bale for a 60-pound bale of horse hay – and that includes last year.

“We had to go all the way to Mack (near the Utah border) to get that price, but we got it,” he said. “But this year, I’m guessing the prices are going to be lower than last year. We’ll just have to see.”

In the meantime, as the season’s first cutting gets sliced, baled and stored, a second crop is already starting to grow – depending on ample rainfall, warm weather and enough irrigation ditch water to nourish the hungry plants.

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518

cclick@postindependent.com


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