Hay shortage officially plagues northern Colorado | TheFencePost.com

Hay shortage officially plagues northern Colorado

Eric Brown
Greeley, Colo.

JOSHUA POLSON / jpolson@greeleytribune.comDusty Winter looks at one of the three remaining stacks of hay at his ranch near Ault last Thursday morning. Winter's remaining hay is still for sale, though with higher demand, he doesn't expect it to last.

Dusty Winter doesn’t need anyone to tell him that the hay shortage in northern Colorado – predicted by everyone months ago – has now officially arrived.

He passes by evidence of that every day.

A grower and seller of the livestock feed, Winter said normally at this time of the year he still has about 1/3 of his hay supply still sitting out at his ranch.

But this year, he has only about 1/8 left – maybe less – and some of that has already been spoken for.

“It’s just been crazy,” said Winter, who grows about 200 acres of alfalfa and grass in the Ault area. “Never seen anything like it.”

This winter’s shortage in the region stems from the hay rush experienced in recent months, when ranchers from other regions – coming from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and southeast Colorado, and coping with below-average hay production amid this year’s drought – arrived in northern Colorado, where hay production was above average.

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Out-of-state ranchers came to the area in droves, desperate to feed their livestock back home and willing to pay a high price, while local producers also bought up hay quickly, trying to snag it up before it was all bought from under them.

“Hay supplies around here are as tight as I can remember,” said Stephen Koontz, a professor and agriculture economist with Colorado State University. “Everyone got really aggressive back in September and October, and there just isn’t much left now.”

Koontz said the region’s hay supply now is possibly even tighter than it was in 2002, when northern Colorado endured what some labeled a 300-year drought. Koontz and other experts believe supplies will remain tight in the area until the first cutting of hay in northern Colorado comes toward the end of May.

“It’s good that there’s really not a ton of demand locally right now, because so many people bought hay during the frenzy … and also because many people buy their feed far in advance and already have what they need to get through the winter,” Koontz said. “But those who don’t have it and need to buy hay are going to have to spend a lot of money to get it, and have a tough time finding it … maybe having find it in another state and pay a lot extra to have it transported.”

The small-scale farmers and horse owners – those who don’t have the resources to buy mass amounts of feed in advance – will likely suffer the most as the hay shortage persists, and be forced to either sell their animals or pay the high prices to feed them.

Koontz said there’s hay available in South and North Dakota for those needing it, but it’s not as high of quality as what’s grown on the irrigated fields of northern Colorado.

Hay prices have skyrocketed as a result of the droughts in other regions and the tightened hay supply locally that followed. According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Colorado Hay Report, which was released Dec. 22, prices for high-quality alfalfa in northern Colorado stood at $240 to $260 per ton – about double what prices were a year ago.

And some ranchers from out of state who desperately need hay have been buying it for even more.

Winter said he’d never been contacted by ranchers from other states wanting to buy his hay. This year, though, he received plenty of those calls, he said.

However, he decided to stay loyal to his local buyers.

“I’ve been doing business with many of these people for years, and they’re the ones who I’ll be doing business with again next year,” Winter said. “I can see why some people might be tempted to sell to out-of-state ranchers or others who’ll pay a higher price for hay.

“But it will rain again in Texas … prices will come back down and those ranchers won’t be back here.”

Not everyone has experienced such loyalty.

Russ Moss, owner of Rusco Land Cattle feedlots near Eaton, said his business had purchased about 400 tons of hay in the summer that was never delivered. Moss said his business paid about $140 per ton for that hay back then, but the hay supplier – one that Moss had been doing business with for 10 years – later found someone willing to pay a higher price.

“People need to make money, I guess,” Moss said.

Moss’ business later had to pay more than $200 per ton for hay to make up for that missing supply.

Many feedlots and dairies in the area are buying less hay now since prices have skyrocketed and supplies have been tight. They instead put their livestock on a diet with more corn silage and distiller grains.

“Life’s still good in Weld County,” Moss said. “The other 90 percent of people we buy hay from are still good people who stand by their word.

“It’s been an interesting year, but we’ll manage to get through it, I suppose.”