Drought brings hay fever
Last fall, the hay bales in my neighbor’s barn were stacked, like gold bullion, about 5 bales wide and higher than I could reach. Most of it came from his alfalfa fields in 2011. He feeds a big Paint gelding and a mare, and hoped the hay on hand would last the winter.
He was right. I watched the stack dwindle, bale by bale, to a few lonely flakes. He quit feeding the horses last week.
My stack sat next to his. It was smaller. In October, it was about 3 bales wide and not very high.
“Small is okay,” I thought. “I only have one horse.”
But, what I was really doing was reconciling myself to the fact that the feed, left over from a 2011 purchase from a longtime Roaring Fork Valley rancher, would probably run out in three months.
“No problem,” I consoled myself. “I’ll buy more then.”
I was half-right: the hay lasted until January. But, finding more in mid-winter after the driest summer since 2002 was like trying to spin straw into gold.
The longtime Roaring Fork Valley rancher? None to spare. A friend in Silt also had none to spare. Most of the people I phoned had no hay for sale. It was slim pickin’s, but I finally found some marginal bales at ten bucks each.
By February, my choices were $15 bales from an upscale, upvalley ranch or retail bales at $17.50. No wonder it looks like gold bullion.
Pat McCarty, with the CSU Extension office in Garfield County, did the math.
“At $17.50, you’re paying about $550 per ton,” he explained.
Compare that to $150 per ton, which, he said, was the price back in the good ol’ days of 2011.
He’s right. I paid six bucks a bale that year for good grass hay.
Some folks went to Montana or Wyoming for last winter’s hay. But as fuel prices skyrocket, freight costs make that a losing venture. McCarty says mixing corn stocks, straw, or lower quality hay with the good stuff can help. I guess I wasn’t the only one counting bales.
But when worse comes to worst, sometimes the animals have to go. McCarty sold off half his stock.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But it makes you appreciate what you have.”
One thing about ranchers, he said, is that they’re an optimistic bunch.
“We’re always looking forward to a good year.”
This summer might just be that year. Jim Cagney, the Bureau of Land Management regional director, said April’s storms came just as the grass was beginning to grow.
Let’s hope he’s right – right as rain.
Amy Hadden Marsh is a freelance writer outside Carbondale, where she takes care of her horse, Blackie.
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