By Chris Rourke
Courtesy of the Gunnison Country Times
The 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.
"You’re dependent on the temperature of the irrigation water," he says. "If it’s straight out of the river and you start having a lot of cloudy days not warming up the ground, your hay’s not going to grow. But when the sun shines and it’s hot, the water’s warm, that’s when everything just takes off."
Still, with the drought driving up the price of hay, that "average" crop is in high demand. That’s good news for local sellers, but not for local buyers.
"Last year, hay was about $140 a ton," McPhail explains. "This year, it’s about $240 a ton. It’s good for the valley because we are shipping a lot of hay and there’s a lot of guys selling hay and it’s going as far as Texas."
Burt Guerrieri of Mill Creek Ranch says a man from eastern Oklahoma stopped by Mill Creek while on vacation because he noticed the hay was doing so well. After talking to Guerrieri, the man had to decide if it was worth shipping hay 600 miles, or selling off his cattle.
"People are desperate," Guerrieri says. "It’s really sad."
"We’re getting four or five calls or e-mails every day, people looking for hay, wanting to know prices and availability," says Roper, adding that he’s getting $100 more per ton than last year.
Because of the demand, the Esty Ranch has posted its selling position on its website: Regular customers get hay first.
"We will be allocating our 2011 grass hay crop first to our historic hay customers, and then to new hay customers, with new customers initially limited to one semi truck shipment each," the website states.
"Everybody is looking for hay in Texas and Eastern Colorado," McPhail says.
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