The severe drought has hit Roaring Fork Valley cattle ranchers where it hurts - in their hayfields.
Hay production is only about 66 percent of average this summer even on property with plenty of water for irrigation, three ranchers in different parts of the valley reported Monday. The lack of rain and a series of early frosts stunted the growth of grasses and alfalfa in hayfields.
"Hay is going to be scarce, and prices are going to go up," said Kit Strang, whose family has worked the Strang Ranch on Missouri Heights since 1965.
Hay prices are spiking already. Hay for cattle sells for about $300 per ton now compared with about $100 per ton last year, said Tom Turnbull, a Carbondale-area rancher since the early 1960s. And precious little hay is for sale in Colorado because the drought has been so severe. That means hay will have to be purchased from other states - adding transit costs that could easily double the price per ton.
Ranchers are in a precarious position. If the drought continues, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management might ask some ranchers to pull their cattle off grazing leases on federal lands earlier than usual. Typically cattle can stay on the range until mid-October.
Wayne Ives, range manager with the Aspen-Sopris District of the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency looks at permits on a case-by-case basis to determine if the cattle must be moved. Forest Service officials realize requiring early removal creates a financial hardship, so they are weighing options carefully. If drought persists, there is less forage production and a greater chance of long-term damage to grasslands, he said. If the monsoon moisture continues as it has this month, the Forest Service probably won't have to force any cows to leave early.
"I would guess we'd be making that decision in September," Ives said.
If cattle must get off federal lands earlier, ranchers must assess if their pastures are in good-enough shape to feed their livestock until snow covers the ground and forces them to start feeding hay.
If there is early snow, ranchers will be forced to feed more hay in a year when production of the crop is down. That could put some operations in a bind.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to get rid of part of the herd this fall," said Rory Cerise, who has ranched in the Emma area for 45 years. His goal is to avoid selling off any of the calf-producing cows that sustain his herd, but the drought will dictate his moves. He and his wife, Lucy, maintain about 70 cows.
"Where we'll be hurting is if we have to start feeding early," Lucy Cerise said.
A cow will eat roughly two tons of hay over the winter, the same as a horse, Turnbull said. If a rancher doesn't have enough hay to feed a cow and has to buy, the economics don't work well. As hay prices continue to climb, the cost of feeding a cow over the course of five winter months will exceed the $800 that a calf currently sells for, Turnbull said. When that occurs, ranchers must determine if it makes more sense to cull their herds and sell the cows that aren't top producers.
Many ranchers store any surplus hay they are able to produce. The wet spring and summer last year produced a bumper crop.
"Carrying over hay is money in the bank - that's what the old-timers used to say," Turnbull said.
The Cerises agree, but their surplus hay from prior years might not be enough to feed their herd all winter because of the diminished production this year.
Ranches upvalley from Glenwood Springs typically get only one cutting of hay because of the higher elevation. Ranches in the lower Colorado River Valley often can get two cuttings when they have water.
Cattle operations anywhere in western Colorado without strong water rights are in the toughest position. Strang Ranch is in good shape with its water rights to a ditch in Missouri Heights, but many neighboring properties have run out of water, Strang said.
The Turnbulls have water rights from the Crystal River; the Cerises have water rights from ditches fed by the Roaring Fork River. Ranchers depending on water rights from tributary streams and those without senior rights to water in ditches found themselves going without.
"I think it's going to be hard on a lot of people," Strang said.
Even with water for irrigation, hay crops weren't as thick or tall this year. Without rain, crops don't do as well. The Strangs didn't even cut the hay in one of their meadows this year because the growth was so stunted.
"Water from heaven is a big influence on how your hay and any crop grows," Strang said.
The Strangs irrigate for a sod farm, and they grow hay and alfalfa for cattle, sheep and horses. There isn't going to be enough hay to go around, so they will need to buy it for their horse-boarding operation, Strang said.
Few horse stables in the Roaring Fork Valley grow all the hay they need for the winter. The cost of hay for horses is higher than hay for cows. Horses cannot tolerate hay with molds.
The higher cost of hay, assuming they can find it, will affect what stables charge their customers. The Strangs started charging boarders $1 more per day in anticipation of greater expenses for hay purchases.
Patrick McCarty, an agricultural extension agent with the Colorado State University Extension in Rifle, said ranchers in Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties are facing a particularly tough time. Parts of northwest Colorado are facing drought ranked "exceptional" by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Much of the state, including Pitkin County, is considered in "extreme" drought.
"This is a catastrophic drought for agriculture in western Colorado," McCarty said. "The hay production has been affected immensely."
Steady rain was needed by the first week of July to make a difference for a lot of ranchers, McCarty said. Now rain will be too little, too late. Some ranchers will face a critical challenge if they must bring their livestock off the range early because they have no pasture to put them, he said, and they don't have enough hay to start feeding them so early in the season.
For those reasons, McCarty expects a big sell-off of cows and a change for agriculture. Many of the ranchers in the West are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, he said. If they sell, many probably won't try to rebuild their herds.
"It's going to change a lot of the intermountain ranches," he said.
McCarty said the drought and high price of hay in 2002 hurt what he labeled the "hobby horse business" in western Colorado. The climbing prices for hay this year will likely have many people asking if it is worth raising the animals, he said.