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Hay growers pulling irrigation off meadows, ready for harvest

Dustin Neelis uses a tractor to gather bales of Hay on Steve Brown's ranch southeast of Steamboat Springs on Monday.
John F. Russell

— It’s almost time for the grass hay harvest to begin, and farmers and ranchers in Routt County are pulling the irrigation water off their meadows so the mown hay will dry out quickly.

Ample snowpack last winter and ground-saturating moisture that fell in April are helping Routt County hay farmers through a dry start to the summer. CSU Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said he anticipates a fairly average hay harvest.

“You’ll see irrigated ground around here going up right quick,” Hagenbuch said July 11. “When the seed head forms and it’s putting on leaves, it’s really ready (the long, slender leaves of grass hay are where the digestible protein is stored). It wasn’t until June that we finally warmed up. We had no spring when the grass started to grow, but it made up for lost time. A week later, we thought, ‘Wow, how did that happen?'”



As of July 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was reporting that small bales of Routt County hay, perhaps left over from the previous summer, was selling for $180 a ton and $5 a bale. But those figures will become more meaningful soon, with hay growers picking up the big round bales that are practical for feeding cattle.

If there’s an irony to all of this, the same hay growers who were desperate for a cold rain in June are now hoping the monsoons hold off until they get the crop in the stack. Hay must dry in the field before it can be baled lest it mold and become unpalatable for livestock.



Should the weather change and the July monsoons arrive, they will complicate the harvest as they often do.

The summer of 2014 was one of those seasons that hay growers dread. July, with 3.69 inches of rain, and August, with 5.05 inches, were both second on the all-time list and made it tough to harvest a hay crop.

The summer of 2016, thus far, is playing a different tune.

Carolyn Sundberg, who collects weather data for the National Weather Service in Hayden, said June, already one of the driest months of the calendar year in West Routt, was exceptionally dry in 2016 with 4/10ths of an inch of rain compared to the typical 1.22 inches based on records kept from 1961 to 1990. But Haydenites also saw 2.8 inches of precipitation in May 2016 compared to the average 1.71 inches, which helped to set up West Routt hay growers for a good crop.

“We had good moisture in ground and good moisture right up up until June,” Sundberg said. “Then the first three days of July, we got more rain than the whole month of June (with .67 inches). And then we got these hot winds that blew it all out.”

Average July precipitation in Hayden is 1.41 inches, she said.

Routt County hay matters in the statewide scheme of things. Weld County, on the eastern slope, is by far the biggest hay-producing county in the state with 150,800 tons in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Neighboring Jackson County ranked second in Colorado, producing 87,500 tons of grass hay, and Routt County was third in Colorado with 55,500 tons of hay produced.

Routt County also produces alfalfa hay, which is a legume. Hagenbuch estimates that alfalfa only accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the hay crop here. And as far as he knows, Routt County is the only one in the country where hay growers attempt to raise a crop of dry-land alfalfa.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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