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Ranchers lament loss of hay production

Tamie Meck
Staff Writer

Ask any rancher and you’ll get the same response:

Hay is in very short supply in Colorado this year.

In a summer where even the drought-tolerant sagebrush withers in the intense heat, it’s no surprise that ranchers are struggling to find enough water to irrigate their crops.

“This is truly a devastating situation from one end to the other,” said Doug DeCosta, owner of the Colorado Hay Co. and president of the Colorado Hay Association, a nonprofit designed to help improve hay production in the state.

DeCosta, who lives in Yampa in northwestern Colorado, is a hay broker. He purchases hay from growers in Colorado and its surrounding states and ships to buyers throughout the region and the country and as far away as Japan.

“It’s real dry, it’s real hot, there’s a water shortage from Canada to Mexico, and it’s too wet in the Midwest,” said DeCosta, calling the situation an “agricultural struggle.”

DeCosta is one of several growers and dealers in the nation listed in the 2002 Colorado Hay Directory. While his listing looks promising – 5,000 tons of grass alfalfa mix, 3,000 to 5,000 tons of mountain meadow and 3,000 tons of timothy – DeCosta bases supply on an annual approximation. This year, he said, he doesn’t have much to offer, and what he does have or anticipates to have by fall is all sold.

“I’m not looking for any more customers,” he said. “I want to make that very clear.”

Buyers who have established relationships with growers and sellers are finding that prices are up, up, up.

Kathy Weiss-Stephenson, owner of Crystal Springs Ranch and Saddlery in Carbondale, said she will pay “top dollar” for hay to feed the ranch’s show horses. The animals require a mix of alfalfa and grass. A high percentage of alfalfa is fine for stock animals, she said, “but it’s too rich for show horses.”

Weiss-Stephenson typically purchases from a grower in Silt, but her supplier had no irrigation water this year, she said. As a result, she went “into a whole new area” to find her hay. She wouldn’t dare say where she purchased her hay. That information is too valuable in a year like this.

She’s also paying between 30 and 50 percent more than in the recent past. It’s that or sell her horses, and she won’t sell her horses.

Cattle ranchers who can’t afford or find the hay they need are selling their stock at auction, noted Weiss-Stephenson. Horse breeders are doing the same, she said.

But since Americans don’t particularly like to eat horse meat, and the horse is a revered animal in this country, the animals are sold for human consumption in countries like France and Japan.

“It’s sad, it’s really sad,” said Weiss, who has raised horses for 30 years.

Some ranchers electing to hang on are grazing their livestock in hay fields that they would normally cut and put up for winter. Or they are paying $150 to $180 a ton for hay, up one-third over last year’s prices, to get their breeding stock through the coming winter.

“It’s funny,” said DeCosta, “people are getting one-third more for their hay, but they’re growing one-third less hay.

“In the long run, nobody benefits from it.”

Hay isn’t the only crop in Colorado taking a beating. According to the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service, winter wheat in 2001 yielded the smallest crops since 1968. Growers expect to harvest 1.65 million acres in 2002, down 350,000 acres from 2001.

The forecast for the state’s average wheat yield in 2002 is 23 bushels per acre, down 10 bushels per acre from 2001 and the lowest since 1977, which was also a below-average rainfall year.

According to CASS, barley production was predicted to rise 2 percent over 2001’s crop, but severe shortages of irrigation water may have adverse impacts on acreage to be harvested and yields per acre.

Fall potato crops in the San Luis Valley are in “good to excellent” condition. However, some growers are experiencing irrigation water shortages, which could impact the fall harvest.

Don’t hold your breath for more irrigation water. Several streams in the Colorado River drainage system are measuring 10 cubic feet per second (cfs) or lower.

The Crystal River near Redstone currently measures between 70 and 80 cfs, compared to a 46-year, median daily stream flow of between 500 and 600 cfs.

One of Colorado’s larger rivers, the Rio Grande, is recording less than 10 cfs at Alamosa.

In the Yampa River valley, where DeCosta grows hay, the free-flowing Yampa was flowing at 4 cfs – barely a trickle.

Of 17 ditches in the Yampa area, DeCosta said only six or seven are flowing, based on existing water rights dating as far back as 1882. The older the rights, the more water is available, “where there’s water,” said DeCosta.

For information on the Colorado Hay Directory, visit the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s website at http://www.ag.state.co.us and click on “drought resources,” or call (303) 239-4100.


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