Before summer even arrives, the specter of drought is casting its desiccated shadow over the farms and fields of Southwest Colorado, imperiling hay crops and forcing ranchers to thin their herds.
The year kicked off with a winter that blessed much of Colorado with ample lateseason snowpack – most of the state, it seems, except the southwest corner. That trend has held steady into late April:
“All regional snowpack levels saw gains this week with the exception of the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan region,” reads an April 25 weekly hay report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Regional snowpack levels are being reported as Yampa and White 102 percent, Colorado 109 percent, North Platte 103 percent, South Platte 94 percent, Arkansas 81 percent, Upper Rio Grande 68 percent, Gunnison 89 percent, and (San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, San Juan) 66 percent.”
Randy Carver is part owner of Colorado Haymakers, in Cortez, and a stockholder in the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, a private company. He pointed out that last year was the driest in Montezuma County in 28 years, drier even than the benchmark year of 2002.
With this year looking like more of the same and McPhee Reservoir already low because of the quickly dwindling regional snowpack, he said, local hay growers will fall into two camps. For those in the Dolores Water Conservation District, prospects for crops are grim.
“We used to think they were going to get one full cutting [of hay],” he said, adding that they might not even get that. “The next two weeks are going to be pretty telling.”
But holders of MVIC water rights will do better than the full-service farmers who rely solely on stored project water. The irrigation company holds historic direct-flow water rights in the Dolores River in addition to water rights from the Dolores Project. The direct-flow rights predate the reservoir and are more senior.
“We will probably get two cuttings,” Carver said. “If the county is wise in how it monitors usage, several of us can get three cuttings.”
Last year, all water allocations drawn from McPhee and the Dolores River were met because the reservoir had a reserve of 140,000 acre-feet going into the season, but there is no such reserve this year. The reservoir is not expected to fill and all Dolores Project supplies are on shortage, according to the DWCD’s web site.
Montezuma County produced 35,100 acres of hay in 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, up from 30,000 the two years before that – likely encouraged by great prices in places like Steamboat Springs and Texas, which were hard-hit by drought last year.
Dolores County, however, has seen a drop in alfalfa acreage – 6,700 acres in 2012, down from 7,400 acres in 2011, 9,300 acres in 2010 and 10,200 acres in 2009.
San Miguel County has held steady, around 2,000 acres of hay per year.
Tom Sabel, a statistician with the program, said they’ve stopped breaking out irrigated versus dry-farming acreage. But it’s likely that irrigated acres are keeping the numbers up.
Paul White, executive director of the Montezuma County Farm Service Agency, said drought conditions have all but driven dryland farmers out of business.
“There’s really not a whole lot of non-irrigated alfalfa any more due to dry seasons,” he said. “It used to be significant.”
That means the hay growers with water will be able to command higher prices this year, both locally and in other droughtstricken parts of the country, and livestock
growers should be prepared to pay a premium. Dry conditions may also hit ranchers from another angle – summer pasture.
Heather Musclow is a supervisory rangeland- management specialist for the Dolores Ranger District in the San Juan National Forest.
“We started our anticipation of the drought last year,” she said. “The plants set their reserves based on the moisture going into the winter. We did not have moisture last fall. We went in extremely dry. We knew we were going to start this year behind.”
So late last year, the district sent a letter out to its permittees who lease acreage in oak, ponderosa pine and grass landscapes, warning them of impending restrictions. Grazing will be delayed by 10 days, to give the vegetation a chance to mature.
At a later growth stage, the grass can “receive the usual grazing with less impact,” Musclow explained. And the same guidelines apply – basically use half, leave half – which means cattle will have to move faster through the rangelands.
None of the permittees have been surprised by the restrictions, she said. “Some of it is because we did start setting the stage last fall. Some of it is because they did go through drought cycles already. We don’t want to compound that, and they don’t either because the overall production goes down, and they lose in the long run.”
Musclow said ranchers have already been cutting their herds in response to the dry conditions, some of them as early as midsummer last year.
Troy Lichliter, yard manager at the Cortez Livestock Auction, said indications are that a significant number of ranchers are following that path.
In a time of year when cattle sales are usually slim, he’s seeing “pretty good-size sales,” he said. “Some people on the reservation are going to bring some sheep up. We’ve been having pretty good sales all winter long. Usually we don’t have much.”
The Farm Service Agency’s White said when pasture gets limited and so does the hay, that’s the bottom line: “If a guy has a right to go out to pasture with 100 head of cows, he’s losing either time [on the grazing allotment] or numbers,” he said. “If you’ve got nothing to bring them home to, because you weren’t able to raise any hay, what are you going to do with them?
“If we don’t raise any hay because we don’t have any water, the next thing is, you’re going to sell cows.”
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, at coloradocattle.org, is keeping track of members who have or need hay or pasture. If you need or want either hay or pasture and would like to be added to the list, call the CCA office at (303) 431-6422, or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture is also offering hay networking and resources, at coloradoagriculture.com.