CARBONDALE - The drought this summer depleted hay crops so severely that many Roaring Fork Valley ranchers have been forced to shell out big bucks to ensure they have enough food for their herds this winter.
"Yields are down almost 50 percent. Hay costs are exorbitantly high," said Tai Jacober, whose family operates Carbondale-based Crystal River Meats.
The Jacobers harvested nearly 2,000 tons of hay that they grew on their land and on leased fields in summer 2011. This year they only put up 1,200 tons.
In some fields with a plentiful water supply, the hay crop was nearly normal, Jacober said. But in other fields dependent almost entirely on spring runoff and less on irrigation, there was no yield.
The cattle industry across the country has been hit hard, with the drought so widespread. As a result, many cattle outfits are selling parts or all of their herds. Jacober said that isn't an option for Crystal River Meats. The family business has contracts to supply beef to Whole Foods Market and several restaurants. It is holding steady at about 1,100 head of cattle, Jacober said.
So the Jacobers and other ranchers have to do what is required to feed their cows through the winter. Cows eat a lot. One cow plows through about 2.5 tons of hay during the typical six-month time they aren't grazing in grass. They are usually dependent on hay from mid-December to mid-May.
The Jacobers started buying hay in the spring in anticipation of not being able to grow enough of their own. They have to absorb the hay purchases as a cost of doing business.
They are fortunate they bought before the full impact of the drought became known. Colorado hay is now selling for $300 per ton compared with $90 to $110 per ton last year at this time, Jacober said.
Monroe Summers, who rents Cozy Point Ranch from the city of Aspen for an operation that includes cattle ranching and horse boarding, said he will likely pay $55,000 to $65,000 in unanticipated expenses to purchase hay this fall.
"Typically, we're able to put up all the hay we need without going out in the market to buy it," he said.
The expense is hitting him particularly hard because the city raised his rent 50 percent two years ago, when business was already hurt by the recession.
Summers said the tough economic times will force him to sell his yearlings before he finishes them off, which means feeding them to a certain weight. He usually holds onto them until they reach 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. They will be sold at a lower weight this year, which means less income. In addition, he will sell calves to avoid the expense of feeding them through the next six weeks.
"We'll sell everyone but the pregnant mother cows," he said. "We're just having a hell of a rough time right now."
While he is shedding expenses, that also means he won't have revenue at this time next year because he won't have yearlings to sell.
Summers said this summer was unusual because even the fields he leases that have good water rights didn't produce all that well. Unseasonably high temperatures in both daytime and nighttime stunted growth of the cool-weather grasses of the Roaring Fork Valley. They need lower nighttime temperatures to thrive.
"That's what really hammered most of the ranchers around here," he said.
One property that Summers leases typically produces 200 tons of hay. This year it produced none. The water in the irrigation ditch was called by holders of superior rights, leaving none for the ground Summers leases.
In fields where water was available, there wasn't great growth until the rain started in July. Summers said he had to wait up to four weeks later than usual to cut the hay to get a good crop out of it. He was able to coax a second cutting in just one location.
He will require between 350 and 400 tons of hay for the horses he boards for the winter. He will need another 150 tons for the 30 or so cows he is keeping.
"In a good year, we can put up 700 to 750 tons," Summers said.
That leaves hay left over that he can sell and supplement the operation's income. This year, he had to purchase reasonably priced hay from Missouri to meet demand.
He is concerned about the sustainability of his business, given the high cost of feed coupled with the higher rent. Like most businesses in the valley that board horses, Cozy Point Ranch is charging a temporary hay surcharge per horse per month. Summers said he personally hasn't received any complaints about the boarding-price increase.
"I think everybody's aware of the problem," Summers said.
Felix Tornare, owner of Milagro Ranch in Missouri Heights, recently found enough hay to purchase to feed his cattle herd through the winter.
"We bought 150 round bales. We never buy hay. We usually sell," he said. "You're not making money - you're spending money."
Most ditches in Missouri Heights are dependent on water from Spring Reservoir at the base of Basalt Mountain. The reservoir is fed by Cattle Creek. The creek didn't run high enough to fill the reservoir. It was drawn down by mid-June this year rather than mid-September, like usual.
In addition, the quality of grazing allotments wasn't up to snuff, so Tornare had to move his cattle to higher ground more quickly than usual this summer. Some ranchers also face the problem of having to start feeding hay to their cattle earlier than usual this fall because ranch pastures are in poor condition because of the drought.
In the heart of the summer, the White River National Forest had warned some ranchers with grazing rights on public lands that they might have to bring their cattle down early if the drought persisted. That didn't happen in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said Ben Carlsen, a range technician with the district. Early in the summer, the district opened "rest pastures" so that cattle could be spread out over a broader area and avoid overgrazing on stressed lands, he said.
There are several pastures within any given grazing allotment. The Forest Service works with ranchers to rotate the cattle onto different pastures, allowing some to "rest" during some years.
Those pastures were kept in the rotation this summer without any detrimental effect on the range, Carlsen said.
The drought could have been worse. Spring came early. No snow fell after March 2. Temperatures soared in April and stayed high in May and June. Precious little rain fell, and the sun baked the landscape.
"Right when we were thinking things were going to burn up, we started getting those July rains," Jacober said.
Carlsen said those rains and lower temperatures in the last half of the summer played a big part in keeping the pastures on public lands in good shape.
While the drought spurred innovation with the Forest Service in managing range, it also spurred cooperation among neighboring ranchers. Tornare said he was able to "borrow" water from an adjacent ranch with superior water rights on a ditch to make sure one of his fields produced a decent hay crop. Thanks to the generosity of those neighbors, he was able to get a second cutting out of one field. Nonetheless, he had to purchase about one-third of the 400 tons of hay he needs for his herd for the winter.
Tornare, like the Jacobers, isn't in a position to reduce his herd to hold down expenses. He has contracts to supply beef to several restaurants operated by Aspen Skiing Co., among others. He is just counting himself lucky now that he didn't sign a contract to supply additional beef to Whole Foods Market and other potential customers.
"There is no way I could support an increased herd," Tornare said.
Given that decision, he's taking the drought and reduced hay crop in stride.
"The barn's full. The money's spent. Now it's time to say, 'Bring on the snow,'" he said.