The last few weeks have been a blessing for those in agriculture, with much needed moisture falling around much of the state. This moisture will help crops to grow, as well as pasture and hay land. Drought conditions have been particularly hard on pastures, many of which are not irrigated.
This decrease in pasture has led many ranchers to turn to purchasing hay, which is also in short supply this year. This demand, coupled with that from other livestock species, has driven the price of hay to unprecedented levels.
According to the USDA Colorado Hay Report, dated May 9, “Hay prices are steady on very limited movement. Spring storms continue to have positive impacts on snowpack levels and drought conditions in the Northern half of the state.”
This moisture will have a profound effect in the area that received the moisture. “However, producers in the both the Southwest and Southeast portions of the state have seen very little improvement in drought conditions. High winds in the Karval area mimicked dust bowl conditions, and have left many farmers and ranchers with depleted top soil and dirt covered pastures with estimates of 100,000 acres affected,” the report stated.
This depleted area is forcing ranchers to decide whether or not to thin herds, buy hay, or sell out altogether. It’s a decision that must be made by around the first of June.
Across the state, small square alfalfa bales are averaging between $250-$450 per ton, which equates to $8-$14 a bale, with large square bales being reported at $200-$300 per ton delivered. Hay was reporting similar numbers. The highest prices were being paid in Northeast Colorado, and the rest of the state was reporting near the lower end.
Statewide snowpack levels have increased over the past few weeks, which brought optimism to local farmers and ranchers.
Unseasonably cool and wet weather throughout April allowed Colorado’s snowpack to increase to near normal accumulation totals. After an entire month of favorable storm tracks, May 1 snow surveys showed that the statewide snowpack percentage climbed to 83 percent of median from 74 percent of median measured on April 1, according to the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“Those wet storms really improved our water supplies, especially along the Front Range and Upper Colorado River basin,” said Phyllis Ann Phillips, State Conservationist with the NRCS.
April is typically the month in which the snowpack in Colorado begins to melt and the runoff season begins. This season, peak snowpack totals for the state were not reached until April 24, over two weeks later than the long term average date of peak accumulation. Statewide maximum accumulation totals for 2013 ended up being 80 percent of the normal seasonal maximum.
“The abundance of snow improved the snowpack situation in the Rockies significantly, which had previously been lagging. By the end of the month, the Colorado statewide snowpack was 80 percent of average, which was up from last month’s 75 percent. Conditions improved greatly in Wyoming, with the month ending at 98 percent of average, up considerably from last month’s 82 percent of average. Many communities along the northern part of the Front Range racked up hefty snow totals this month. Boulder, Colo., had its snowiest April on record with 47.6-inches and beat the old record by over 3.0 inches. The old record of 44.0 inches was set in 1957,” said Natalie Umphlett of the High Plains Regional Climate Center in her report on May 5.
This moisture has led to a decrease in the area in drought, and the severity of the drought. “Precipitation and below normal temperatures continued this week, in the High Plains Region, which aided in the improvement of the drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the area of moderate drought (D1) or worse decreased by 2.5 percent this week, to total 82.55 percent of the Region. This reduction occurred in southeastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas, where a band of beneficial rain fell and in north-central Colorado where snow and rain fell as well,” said Joseph Brum of the High Plains Regional Climate Center in his report on May 10.
He continued, “The area of severe drought (D2) decreased as well this week after remaining constant last week. The reduction in D2 area was a little more than 3 percent of the Region. A decrease in extreme drought (D3) took place again this week. The reduction of 2 percent occurred in central Kansas and along the Nebraska-Wyoming border. Unfortunately areas in southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado had areas of exceptional drought (D4) expand this week due to lack of precipitation.”
The moisture laden storm systems that moved through in April were mainly focused on northern Colorado, while completely missing the southwest portion of the state. Snowpack totals in the South Platte River basin increased from 71 percent of median on April 1, to 99 percent of median on May 1. Both the Colorado River basin and the combined Yampa, White and North Platte basins were reported to be at 98 percent of median on May 1 up from 78 and 79 percent of median measured on April 1. In contrast to these success stories, the Rio Grande and combined San Miguel, Animas, Dolores and San Juan basins saw major declines in their snowpack percentages this past month. As of May 1 the Rio Grande reported snowpack totals at 41 percent of median and the southwest basins were at 43 percent of median; both basins reached their seasonal peak snowpack in early March and began melting out in April.
With the additional snowfall in April, the water supply outlook has improved for most of the state’s seven major river basins. All basins, except for those in the southwest portion of the state, saw improvements to their streamflow forecasts this month. While most forecasts across the state still call for below normal runoff volumes this season, some of the forecasts for the headwaters of the Colorado and South Platte basins are now near to slightly above average.
Statewide reservoir storage volumes are currently 74 percent of average, and 68 percent of 2012’s volumes. The good news is that in the northern basins the recent snow accumulation has yet to run off and should help improve storage and extend water supplies further into the summer season. In the southern basins, storage levels remain low and the probability of vast improvements this season are slim.
Regional snowpack levels are being reported as Yampa and White 90 percent, Colorado 102 percent, North Platte 97 percent, South Platte 104 percent, Arkansas 73 percent, Upper Rio Grande 31 percent, Gunnison 67 percent, and (San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, San Juan) 39 percent. ❖