‘What do you do?’: Hay production down 70% to 90% in Routt County

Ranchers across the county are contemplating how they will feed their herds through the winter, or if they will have to sell them off.

Rancher Rick Wilhelm was contracted to cut hay at Marabou Ranch west of Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

As the Muddy Slide Fire calmed down last week, Todd Hagenbuch was working to get cattle evacuated because of the fire back on pastures in the Morrison Creek Valley.

“They need to get them back in because there is so little grass,” said Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension Office. “Because of the drought, we really need to use all the pasture possible.”

The Western Slope is in the midst of a 20-year drought, and almost all of Northwest Colorado is at the highest drought level recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor, according to an update late last week. This has caused ranchers to contemplate drastic measures for months, and many of those are starting to happen.

This summer’s dry conditions have some longtime local ranchers saying they have never seen nonirrigated pastures so dry, with some of them so bad, the grass is too thin and short for any of it to be harvested. Yields are down roughly 70% to 90% of what they would produce in a normal year, Hagenbuch said.

“Some of the fields don’t have enough to go through the machine,” said Larry Monger, whose family has been ranching in the Yampa Valley since the 1800s. “Most of the fields have 25%. It is really amazingly deficient.”

Hagenbuch said the locally grown hay is pretty important, because it is either used to feed herds for the six-months of the year it cannot be grown, or it is the main income for people who sell hay.

“They will have to get it from elsewhere, and the people who sell hay won’t have that income stream,” Hagenbuch said.

In a typical year, ranchers would start cutting hay a week or so before the Fourth of July, but that happened about two weeks earlier this year, if it can be cut at all. The hay needs to be cut, gathered with a rake and then put through a baler to create the large cylindrical bales that would generally dot fields throughout the valley right now.

Monger works about 500 acres for hay, which would normally yield between 800 and 1,000 bales. This year, it may be closer to 200 bales. Monger said his neighbor would normally get 100 of these 1,200-pound bales from his land. This year, he got the same number of bales, but they were the 70-pound square bales instead.

“What do you do?” said Rich Wilhelm, who is contracted to cut hay for Marabou Ranch to the west of Steamboat Springs. “You have to run over it, because you got to have something.”

On the 400 acres of land he was cutting, Wilhelm said he would normally get between 350 and 400 bales. He said he might get 100 this year.

“That is hardly worth the time, but you can’t afford to buy it either,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm said the hay he was cutting was not going to be enough for the Marabou Ranch to make it through the winter, so they will likely need to buy hay from elsewhere.

Hay prices are likely to be higher because of drought as well, even though the Eastern Plains have had enough rain to pull the region out of drought conditions. At the hay auction in Fort Collins late last month, Wilhelm said hay was selling for $250 per ton and up.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Wilhelm said. “They have been getting rain, and they thought hay would be back to normal. Not so much.”

Monger said he has already arranged to buy some hay for this year, and he is typically the one selling hay. This year, they might be selling cattle instead.

Hagenbuch said the one silver lining is that Eastern Colorado has gotten rain, so ranchers won’t have to go to Oregon to get hay, like some did in 2012.

Dan Craig, in Phippsburg, is used to needing to buy hay to feed his herd through the winter and plans to buy more this year — “If there is any to buy,” he said.

“What is going in the stacks now is not looking very good,” Craig said.

Instead of chasing hay from places that got better rain, 76-year-old Craig said he would rather just sell his herd, which is only about 20 cows. He said other ranchers need to be willing to sell off part of their herds before the pasture runs out. When the pasture is gone, they all have to go, Craig said.

“I think we’ve got enough pasture to get through the summer,” Craig said. “It is getting through the winter that will be tough. … We’ll just see what happens.”

Ranchers watch the genetics of their herds very closely, especially in Routt County, where many run a cow-calf operation. These genetics are built through years of picking and choosing which calves and cows to keep because of their specific traits.

Craig said his herd is a performance-based herd that has competed in performance tests for 50 years, with his animals often ranking pretty close to the top.

“To rebuild this herd would take a lifetime,” Craig said. “And I don’t have a lifetime left.”

Steamboat Pilot & Today Journalist John F. Russell contributed to this report.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.