Northwest Colorado ranchers deal with early snow

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS While still reeling from a hay season that produced less crop than normal, most ranchers in the Yampa Valley are feeding cattle larger amounts of hay earlier because of snow and continued cold.

"That's what I've been hearing," Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said.

Thanks to this year's Halloween snowstorm, grazing lands that are usually open through November were covered up with snow, forcing some ranchers to go to their hay supply early.

However, it may be the cold temperatures coupled with the early snowfall that is really putting the dent in hay supplies, Mucklow said.

When it is extremely cold, cattle consume more hay. Mucklow estimated that ranchers need to feed somewhere between 10 and 20 percent more compared to last year's amount of hay consumed.

That will put ranchers on a close watch on hay supplies, which were hard to come by when the hay season ended in the fall.

Mucklow estimated in the fall that irrigated hay was 30 percent off, while dry-land is anywhere from 40 to 100 percent off. That pushed hay prices up to $100 to $150 a ton for good horse hay, compared to the steady $90 a ton it usually goes for. Plus, lower quality hay, which is used to feed cows, just can't be found in the Yampa Valley, he said.

"On a short hay year, the weather is making life kind of interesting," rancher Jim Stanko said.

The Stanko ranch is just south of Steamboat Springs. He said his cows are "sucking up" the hay fast while weathering through temperatures that he saw dip down to 12 below zero in the morning at times.

Stanko started feeding his cattle two tons of hay a day about 10 days early this year. That means his operation used 20 tons more in November than normal.

"It's kind of a weird year," he said,

Though the snow and cold came early this year, Stanko said there was just as much snow on the ground at the beginning of December this year as there was in December of 1999. It's just the cold weather that is sticking around, he said.

"If it's this cold in November, you better hang onto your hats in January," Stanko said.

Jay Fetcher, who runs the Fetcher ranch in north Routt County, has had at least a foot of snow on the ground through November and has been feeding cattle for a month on hay.

"And it's been extremely cold," Fetcher said.

He has used about 20 tons of hay more in November, too.

To combat the cold, Mucklow said ranchers can use grain feed as a supplement, which this winter is not as expensive as hay because of a good corn crop in the Midwest.

"I think people are beginning to think about that stuff," Mucklow said.

The extension office has conversion charts from hay to corn to help ranchers know how much grain feed to use as a supplement.

Ranchers in south Routt haven't had to worry too much about weather problems. Rancher Dean Rossi, who is part owner of a ranching operation near Phippsburg, said he expects to start feeding cattle later than usual this year.

"We just haven't seen the snow," he said.

Most of his fields are still open for grazing and it's business as usual, Rossi said.

Stanko said Rossi's luck with the weather is well earned. For a couple seasons in a row, south Routt ranchers have had to deal with spring rain when it was time to harvest and stack hay.

"They have had rain and miserable weather," Stanko said. (Doug Crowl is a reporter with the Steamboat Springs Pilot/Today).

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