STEAMBOAT SPRINGS Stockmen don't always pray for snow it makes feeding cattle a chore, and this time of year, it's tough on newborn calves but the return to winter weather over the weekend was a blessing for local ranchers and farmers.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is reporting that snowpack in the Yampa River basin as of Thursday ranges between just 50 and 75 percent of average, and that means less water to irrigate hay fields in northwest Colorado early this summer.
Last year's hay crop was nothing less than a disaster due to low runoff and summer drought conditions, CSU Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said. A second poor hay crop in a row would have even a harsher impact on local agriculture, he said, because farmers and ranchers already have used up year-old stocks of cow hay left over from the summer of 1999.
"If we have another drought, it will be even worse," Mucklow said. The impact of poor hay yields is felt in higher prices that make it prohibitively costly to feed livestock, both cattle and horses. When that happens, ranchers begin reducing the size of their herds. But that can mean less income to pay for the fixed costs of an agricultural operation.
Laurie Hallenbeck, who ranches southeast of Hayden with her husband, Dennis, said they can withstand another bad hay year, but she wouldn't be surprised if some ranchers in Routt County were pushed out of business by a second successive poor year.
"I know of people in Hayden who have ranched all their lives and have sold all their cows," Hallenbeck said.
Mucklow said the cost of Routt County's grass hay usually ranges from $60 to $80 a ton. He is seeing hay selling for up to $275 a ton and Hallenbeck has seen it as high as $300 a ton. A cow-calf unit requires 2.5 tons of hay a winter, and the difference between hay at $65 a ton and $225 a ton is significant to say the least.
"It's critical," Mucklow said. "It's the most expensive part of raising cattle. You can't really afford to feed cows at that price. It just doesn't work economically, even in a rising cattle market."
When it becomes more difficult for ranchers to afford to feed their livestock, Mucklow said, they become more aggressive about culling their herd. Instead of sending 15 to 20 percent of their least productive cows to slaughter, they might cull 20 to 25 percent, Mucklow said. More ranchers than usual also have shipped their cattle to the Eastern Slope for the winter, Mucklow said. There, he said, the cattle can feed on corn stalks.
Snowpack isn't the only factor that will determine the productivity of this year's hay crop, Mucklow said. It takes rain during the critical growing period to fuel high yields in the hay field.
Agriculturalists aren't the only people hoping for the snowpack to build late this winter and spring. Whitewater paddling enthusiasts also are yearning for a more protracted runoff than last year.
Peter Van De Carr at Backdoor Sports said there's no such thing as a bad boating year, and this year's snowpack can still produce a decent year if the snowmelt is gradual.
Last year's high water mark on the Yampa in town was well above average, he said. But the whitewater season ended abruptly.
"It definitely dropped off a cliff the second week in June," he said. (Tom Ross is a reporter for the Steamboat Springs Pilot/Today.)