A wet, muddy job, but somebody’s gotta do it
“It’s a pretty low-tech deal,” said my friend Dan as he watched me dam up the feeder ditch with a chunk of sod. I reflected on that observation. I had one advantage over the Aztecs, Sumerians and Anasazi, the first cultures that irrigated fields ” I had a metal shovel. Other than that, I was accomplishing a timeless task that must have been identical 5,000 years ago.
The water started gushing out of the ditch and onto the thirsty new grass. Life.
If you’ve never put on a pair of irrigating boots and headed across a hayfield with a shovel and a dog, you’ve never lived. The work environment is phenomenal. A mule deer doe and two fawns spring from the patch of willows. The dog digs earnestly for the fat little voles that live in the dead grass. Chorus frogs happily belch out their songs, meadowlarks sing, redwing blackbirds chuckle, leaves burst from the cottonwood trees, and the apricot trees punctuate the landscape with pink blossoms. A cock pheasant cackles somewhere in the cattails below, and far away on the highway, the sound of busy people is remote.
A good irrigator is resourceful, energetic, observant and, yes, wise. The job is simple: Get the water to cover the ground. But accomplishing that task can be oh-so-very difficult. It takes time and experience to get good at it, and each time a man shows up to irrigate a new field, he knows he won’t do as good a job as he will next year or three years from now, when he knows better the intricacies of gravity, viscosity and the topography of that particular place.
This year the ditch rider turned the water into our ditches in Crawford earlier than usual, the result of an early, warm spring and a torrent of water gushing down the creek. Use it or lose it. But hey, Rush Limbaugh says there’s no such thing as global warming, and so we shouldn’t worry that the spring runoff is three weeks early this year. (A ditch rider is responsible for maintaining a ditch, and is paid by the users’ annual dues. In the old days, he rode the ditch by horseback, pulling limbs and trash and other obstructions out of the channel and repairing breaks. Today he uses an ATV or a pickup.)
I was in a tizzy, rushing back and forth from Marble, burning ditches, repairing fence, moving my horses into another pasture. The water gushed forth as if someone had cut an artery. Upstream users on the ditch were even more unprepared than I, and few of them were diverting water from the ditch, leaving it all to rush out on my fields. I didn’t get a chance to harrow the fields before the water came, so the clumps of horse manure never got broken up.
I did get a chance to burn most of the ditches, which is essential to good flow. It’s amazing how much drag the previous year’s dead grass, willow stems and weeds exert on the column of water in the ditch. Once the trash is either burned off or raked out, the clean ditch exerts a hydraulic pull on the water above at the headgate, pulling it down the ditch and onto the fields. Once a field has been wet once, it’s easier to get wet the next time. Two passes with the water, and you have green hay.
The other problem is what to do with your livestock while you’re trying to raise hay. April and May are the toughest months. Ranchers take their cattle to the high country to graze on open range, but the grass isn’t high enough until June. Hayfields are growing, and often ranchers herd their cattle or horses onto a barren, dry field and bring in hay until they can be moved. Right now my horses are standing in water, nibbling on the tender shoots of grass as they emerge from the snowmelt water. It’s bad for their feet, but they love the grass.
Haying is another story. You can spend all the time in the world carefully nurturing a crop to harvest, and then it’s a question of when to cut. Last year my friend Mindy made the wrong decision, and it rained three weeks straight. She had 40 acres of black alfalfa.
In any event, raising hay is not a paying proposition. In the Delta/Hotchkiss/Crawford area, raw irrigated land (hayfields) is selling for between $3,000 and $7,000 an acre, depending on the size of the parcel. Hay sells for between $75 and $120 a ton, depending on the water and the harvest that year. Yearly yields average between a ton and 3 tons an acre, and the costs of swathing, baling and stacking hay run up to $40 a ton. In the Roaring Fork Valley, where hayfields can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre, it’s just pure stubbornness to keep farming it.
In my particular position, however, I don’t like the uncertainty of renting pasture from a landowner for our 35 horses. I don’t like being at the mercy of someone else’s unmended fences, rusting machinery, prairie dog holes and other hazards. And, I’ve always wanted to own a hayfield.
So I load the dogs in the car, drive over to Crawford, put on my irrigating boots, and try to figure out how to get the place wet. I come home wet, muddy, tired and happy.
Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he and his wife, Doris, operate OutWest Guides. They offer summer horseback rides, fly-fishing trips and autumn big-game hunts.
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Lift-Up has helped feed hungry families in the Roaring Fork Valley for 38 years, but experienced in a surge in demand this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is making changes to meet the demand and address allegations of incidents of discrimination.