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Greener Pastures in Colorado

September 29, 2011
Mike Leiner checks to see if the Esty Ranch hay is dry and ready to be tedded.  

By Chris Rourke

Courtesy of the Gunnison Country Times

A Day in Ag logoThe hay crop in the Gunnison Valley is about average this year, despite there being no shortage of water with which to irrigate. While "average" doesn’t sound all that exciting, the harvest is abundant compared to parts of the south central and southwest United States suffering from extreme drought.

Five counties in southern Colorado have been declared disaster areas because of the drought: Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Rio Grande and Saguache counties. Ranchers in those counties now qualify for aid and low-cost loans through USDA.

The drought is also driving up the price of hay in states such as Texas, where ranchers are forced to sell off cattle or look for hay elsewhere.

Since hay in the Gunnison Valley is dependent more on snowmelt than on rainfall, growth this year has been about as good as it gets.

"[We’re] probably a little above average," says Allen Roper, foreman of the Esty Ranch, who helps maintain more than 1,000 acres of flood-irrigated hay fields. "The quality is really good, as long as we keep putting it up with no rain."

Haying throughout the area generally starts around the end of July to early August. The hay is cut and raked, then allowed to dry so that it won’t mold when it’s bailed.

Any rain like the area had last week delays the process. Once dry, the hay is baled into large round bales or smaller square bales.

While this year’s run-off was above normal, the extra moisture didn’t seem to add much to hay growth. Many ranchers say the average growth is due to the slow start to the growing season in the spring, with cooler than usual nights and cloudy days.

"[With the] cool weather in spring, grasses were slow to grow," says Mike Leiner, who is helping with the Esty Ranch’s haying operation. "[The growth of the hay is] at least two weeks late...maybe a month late growing, seeding out, and being ready to cut."

Gunnison County Extension Agent Eric McPhail agrees that the cooler June could have slowed the growth process.

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