Colorado Hay Production Hindered by drought |

Colorado Hay Production Hindered by drought

Story & Photos by Robyn Scherer, M.AgR. | Staff Reporter

Hay production is in full swing in Colorado, and the issue facing operators from across the state is the same: drought. Lack of snowpack during the winter and an early, warm spring has left many producers with decreased yield, and an outlook that depicts a continued decrease in production.

“Based on my observations, production is quite variable. Grass hay with its shallower root system has been more affected than alfalfa. Grass hay producers that did not have the ability to apply early water are experiencing significant yield declines. Some fields are hardly worth cutting,” said Joe Brummer, Extension Forage Specialist with Colorado State University.

He continued, “Alfalfa has fared better with its deeper root system, but I would expect first cutting yields to be down slightly if producers were not able to apply early water to their alfalfa fields. One bright spot with the early growing season is that some alfalfa producers might be able to get an extra cutting this year, assuming they will have irrigation water available later in the growing season.”

Hay production in Colorado depends greatly on rain in the spring, and then water from the snowpack in the mountains through the rest of the growing season. This year, it did not rain as much in the spring, and the snowpack was down compared to years past.

“The snowpack has definitely affected the ability of producers that rely on surface water to adequately irrigate their crops. The severity of this impact will be somewhat dependent on location, but everyone with surface water rights will be affected to some degree, especially as we move through the growing season. There will definitely be calls placed on the stream/river/ditch systems by those senior water rights holders leaving some producers with little or no irrigation water,” said Brummer.

Colorado is considered a first-in-time, first-in-right state, which means those who have had the water rights the longest get their water fulfilled first. This battle for water means those with junior rights may have a larger amount of water they use, but because their rights are younger they may get little to no irrigation water. Once this occurs, the fields dry up and there is nothing a producer can do about it unless it rains.

This lack of water is a big problem for producers across the state, and started earlier than normal this year due to the early spring. “I would say the biggest challenge this spring for forage producers has been their ability, or lack thereof, to apply irrigation water earlier than normal. With the warm temperatures and dry conditions, the plants needed water earlier than normal to avoid stressing the plants and reducing first cutting yields. On the Front Range/eastern plains, this need for early season water was often way ahead of when the ditch companies were ready and able to supply water to the producers,” he said.

The lack of moisture early really hurt the ability of the grasses to grow, as they needed the water earlier than normal. Coupled with very few springs rains, and the plants just didn’t have adequate water. This decrease in growth will result in a decreases in production.

Brummer said, “It is all about water in Colorado, but as a whole, production is going to be down this year unless we start to get significant rains to offset the low supplies of irrigation water. The early growing season (warm temperatures) has also affected plant growth, especially the grasses. The cool-season grasses accumulated enough growing degree days with the early temperatures that they put out a seedhead earlier than normal with minimal stem growth. Since most of your production with grasses is associated with that stem growth in the first cutting, grass hay production is going to be significantly impacted.”

Alfalfa production will also be affected in Colorado, though the first cutting won’t be as diminished as the grass hay will be. “Alfalfa, with its deeper root system, has been able to weather the early season dry conditions better than the grasses. However, alfalfa yields will begin to suffer as well if adequate irrigation water is not available through the rest of the growing season. Alfalfa is somewhat unique in that it can go dormant during dry/drought conditions and still recover once water becomes available,” stated Brummer.

This means that alfalfa production should maintain steady, at least through the first cutting. The production from the rest of the year, however, is variable at best and only time will tell what that production will be like.

One hay producer who has seen the affect of the drought first hand is John Cox, who owns JC Cross Ranch in Keensburg, Colo. He irrigates 185 acres of cool season grasses using pivot sprinklers.

Cox, who usually puts up nearly 20,000 small square bales a year, is expecting a poor cutting this spring. “We expect 2012 production to be down about 75 percent. Some hay buyers don’t understand that most of the grasses we grow here are cool season such as orchard, brome and wheat grasses,” he said.

He continued, “These cool season grasses get most of their growth from early April to mid June. If we can’t get water on those plants during their peak growth window, we cannot make it up later. It doesn’t matter how much water we get now, the peak growth season is gone.”

Cox usually gets two cuttings per year, with the first in June, which accounts for 60-70 percent of his yearly production. The second cutting will happen at the end of September. If the grass can get water later in the summer, the second cutting might not see as much of a decrease in yield.

This decreased yield means that hay customers will continue to see high prices for hay. This is compounded by the shortage of hay in the South, and decreased inventories due to the amount of hay that was shipped into Oklahoma and Texas last year.

“We had low inventories coming into the year, below average pastures, and reduced supplies. The entire southwestern U.S. is still in drought suggested prices should be higher than most would like. Last year we had a few out-of-state hay buyers who reported prices at $14-20 at their home states of New Mexico, Texas, California and Arizona, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see that here come winter,” said Cox.

Denise Brammer, owner of Cornstone Hay in Sterling, agrees that prices will stay high. “Hay will stay where it is or it will go up. I’m not sure who is gonna give in first – the producers or consumers. The feedlot market is driving the hay market, and it makes it really hard for the little guys to stay in the business,” she said.

Brammer is a hay broker and they grind hay for livestock producers. She has seen a difference this year in how producers are marketing their hay. “We haven’t had any problems finding hay, and some of that is due to the fact that people have land payments due June and they need the cash. We have had to widen our circle of where we go to fetch hay, however. It may get tough to find it because things are so dry though,” she said.

“Most of the state is currently classified as being in a moderate to severe state of drought, so yes, it is definitely going to be an issue this year if we don’t get adequate rain soon,” said Brummer.

The lack of snowpack, early spring and drought will certainly lead to uncertainly for the remainder of the hay season. “It’s a crazy world we live in. If it stays dry, it will get worse. It’s gonna be another wild year,” said Brammer.

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