Straw doesn’t typically take its place at the center of agriculture-commodity conversations, but conditions this year could bring more attention to the wheat field by-product.
Commonly used as bedding for livestock or as ground cover to maintain moisture in soil, thousands of tons of straw have been used recently to cover mountain slopes where the Hewlett Gulch fire raged this summer and left loose ash that now poses a threat to the drinking water of many northern Colorado cities.
Without the straw to keep the parched ground in place, that debris, if heavy rains come to the area, could flow into the reservoirs and rivers and affect both the quality of the water and also clog up water-delivery systems.
And much more straw will be needed as fire-mitigation efforts continue this summer. Reclamation crews haven’t even started to take such measures on areas burned by the High Park fire, which covered 10 times more acres than the Hewlett Gulch blaze, and the many wildfire-mitigation needs in other parts of the U.S. will only increase demand for straw.
Also, at a time when corn and hay are in short supply because of drought and are getting expensive, wheat straw — when treated with ammonia and mixed in with other sources of feed, like alfalfa — can help some producers keep their livestock fed.
For those reasons, agriculture experts and producers agree wheat straw could be valuable in 2012, and also hard to find.
“It certainly sounds like it will be in high demand,” said Rich Huwa, a Keenesberg-area farmer whose family also owns a reclamation company that uses straw from its own fields, but also buys straw from a handful of other local wheat producers. The Huwas’ reclamation company helped with the Hayman fire mitigation efforts in 2002, and with the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010, Huwa noted. “We’ve really seen the price of straw go up recently ... and anyone who has some of it this year is sitting in a good spot.”
While demand is expected to be high, the supply in northern Colorado is expected to be limited. Because of the lack of rain this year, some wheat locally didn’t grow tall enough to allow farmers to even bale the straw. Wheat on irrigated acres produces enough straw to be baled, but most wheat grown in the region is done on dry ground.
Also, many local farmers said they’ve already used their straw this year in other ways — spreading it on their fields for ground cover to help maintain good soil-moisture content, or selling it to their usual buyers, like dairymen, who need soft spots for their cattle to lie.
Colby Reid — the project manager for Western State Reclamation Co. in Frederick, which was hired by the city of Greeley and the U.S. Forest Service to spread straw on the acres surrounding the Milton Seaman Reservoir — is fully aware there’s not an abundance of straw available in northern Colorado. He said what little straw there is is getting expensive.
He said his company went to seven local producers to find the tens of thousands of tons they needed for their work at the Milton Seaman Reservoir. He added that two years ago, his company was paying about $80 per ton for straw, and that price included delivery to the work site. This year, it’s priced at more than $100 per ton, he said, and the company is having to travel to go get it.
Reid added that he expects his company will soon have to travel outside of Colorado to get the straw they need, which will only add to operation costs.
Jim Robb, director at the Livestock Marketing Information Center, agreed that wheat straw will be in higher demand this year, but making the picture unclear for both sellers and buyers, he added, is that wheat straw is not closely examined by the industry, so it’s tough to tell how much is available, and how high prices could climb.