iSeeChange: Hay, What's Happening?

Oct 20, 2015

Credit flickr user question_everything

It’s been a weird year for weather in Colorado. With a winter so warm and dry that trees bloomed in January, hay farmers started having flashbacks to the drought of 2012. But by spring, rains did come to Colorado, and the wet weather has been good news - for some.

As part of a special iSeeChange collaboration with  KDNK in Carbondale, and KSJD in Cortez, Amy Hadden Marsh and KVNF's Jake Ryan started looking at how the hay markets fared this year. 

The early drought had many farmers and ranchers worried, but when the skies opened up, hay grew.  Norm Smith is a rancher just outside of Paonia.  Norm’s been ranching for decades, and his family before him.  He’s seen good years and bad years, but this year has been great. 

First, the mild winter helped the newborn calves, “and then Spring came, and the rains came, and the cool weather, and the grass grew,” said Birtcher, “Everything’s been like a year it should be.”

He said having that hay on hand brings him some peace of mind.

“It’s just like feeding your kids,” he said, “It’s there.  If you need a little extra one day, you can go out and do it.”

After the drought of 2012 ranchers were forced to look for hay far and wide. They used corn cobs for feed, and sold off animals they couldn’t afford to keep. For Norm, this year’s been a welcome change.

“I probably spent 15, 20 thousand on extra feed for the animals,” he said.  “This year I won’t do that.  Everything from the price of fertilizer to fuel, and parts for your machinery, everything’s went up, so it’ll help – not having to buy extra feed.”

The rain might be a welcome change for Norm, but there was a downside to this, especially if farmers grew hay to sell.  Weston Mauz has 73 acres of hayfields in Silt.  Drought, like the one in Texas four years ago, can actually help his business in Colorado.

“It soaked up a lot of the surplus in this area that we shipped out,” said Mauz, “so those of us who did not ship experienced a strong price for the hay we had.

When Colorado ranchers shipped their hay to Texas, there was a local shortage, so local prices went sky-high.  This year, Weston got more hay than usual from his first cutting in June.   Plus, he ended up with hay from two more cuttings.  That’s a lot of hay and he hasn’t been able to sell it.

“On Craig’s List, I have an ad running,” he said, “I’m asking probably $165 a ton.  It’s excellent hay.  There are some pictures with the ad and description and so forth, but nobody’s called.”

North of Silt, it’s not much different. A rancher from Rio Blanco County reported that last winter was so warm, ranchers near Rangely and Meeker didn’t use up the hay they had on hand.

Bob Bragg is a farmer near Cortez who has an ag-market show on KSJD, another iSeeChange station.  He grows hay, and has been following what the market has been like, here in Colorado and the whole West.

He’s seen the same thing that the smaller farmers have seen, and it’s even more pronounced for big growers with hay stocks from the Southwest flooding the market.

“They’ve got hay stocks from New Mexico and Texas that are coming in locally,” said Bragg. “We don’t compete because of the transportation costs.”

He says it’s hard to celebrate the rain when farmers are staring at the bottom line.

“I don’t even think they’re looking ahead to say ‘well this is the end of the drought and we’re going to be in good times,’” he said, “I think they’re just trying to struggle to get by right now.”

This year’s rain has been a mixed bag.  For many people, it’s a secure feeling to have hay in the barn. It’s like money in the bank.  But, for others, scarcity makes the hay pay.

What’s YOUR question? Have you noticed something different this season that you want to know more about?  Join the conversation. Post your observations, photos, and questions on iseechange.org, and we’ll find you answers.