An extreme shortage of hay as a result of unprecedented drought in Southwest Colorado could force livestock operations struggling to survive to make tough decisions.
“I’ve never seen it this dry,” said Barbara Jefferies with the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association. “It’s not going to be good.”
Drought conditions started in Southwest Colorado last fall and have persisted ever since.
The San Juan Mountains received just half the amount of snowfall it usually does, leaving reservoirs in the area precariously dry. Lemon Reservoir, which is fed by the Florida River, for instance, is just 50 percent full.
This spring, rain failed to show up, too. As of June 15, the region had received just 1.41 inches of rain since Jan. 1, about 4.2 inches below historic averages, according to a weather station at the Durango-La Plata County Airport.
All this has resulted in livestock owners having less water available to irrigate pastures and grow hay. And with no hay, ranchers must find other ways to feed their cattle or make the grim decision to sell off the herd early.
“We’ve had friends and neighbors already culling herds and selling off,” said Peggy Beebe, a rancher near Bayfield. “It’s looking very bleak.”
In a normal year, cows give birth to calves in the spring, which then spend the summer grazing to gain weight and be weaned off their mothers. In the fall, calves are sold to slaughterhouses.
But in a drought year, when grasses don’t naturally grow on pastures and there’s no hay available, ranchers don’t have anything to feed their cattle.
Trent Taylor, who grows hay in western La Plata County, said he’ll only be able grow less than half the amount of hay he usually does because of lack of water. It’s mid-June and already he’s almost out of hay for sale.
“They (ranchers) are really struggling to find food for their animals right now,” Taylor said.
In Montezuma County, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise is also feeling the effects of the drought. The tribe gets its irrigation water almost exclusively from McPhee Reservoir, which is at a record low this year. Tribal employee Eric Whyte said the enterprise’s water allotment was reduced from 24,000 to 17,000 acre-feet, and about 300 acres of planned alfalfa crops had to be left fallow as a result. He said he expects to lose about $1.5 million in revenue.
When there’s no local hay available and no grass on Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands for those with permits, ranchers look to other places with excess hay, but that can be expensive and not cost-effective, Taylor said.
And for livestock owners who can’t afford this option, it really leaves the worst-case scenario: sell off the herd early, which brings in a much lower price and can push a rancher’s business to the brink.
“I’ve already heard of several that have sold a large numbers of their herd because there’s no grass on their pastures,” Jefferies said. “To see them be loaded on the truck just brings tears.”
Cortez horse hay farmer Russell Decker, whose farm sells its product all over the country, said he plans to prioritize selling to local buyers this year because of the high demand.
“The local businesspeople are calling us like crazy, and we’re trying to take care of everybody that we can,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 21 percent of areas that produce hay are experiencing drought, a large portion of which is located in the American Southwest.
While the monsoon this year, which typically arrives in July and August, is supposed to bring above average rainfall, it may be too late for ranchers and farmers to experience a turnaround, Taylor said.
“It’ll be one of those years where you collect crop insurance and move on,” Taylor said.
Decker said he expects to come through this year without too great a loss in revenue. He’s more concerned about next year’s water supply.
“If we don’t have a good monsoon and we don’t have a good winter, then this year is going to be wonderful compared to what next year could be,” he said.
Beebe said this year conjures memories of 2002, another intense, waterless year most locals recollect as the pinnacle of surviving drought.
Beebe and her family survived that year, and she expects she’ll survive this year, too.
As a rancher in the arid West, Beebe said you have to prepare for the ups and downs, especially the downs.
“It’s not a regular paycheck like what people get with a regular job – you depend on the weather, hay growing, all of that,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle, and it’s something you have hardships in.”
Whyte, who also experienced the 2002 shortage, said the way the Farm and Ranch Enterprise recovered from that year gives him hope for the future.
“We’ve seen the worst,” he said. “Look at this oasis in the desert. (The drought) is going to affect us, yes, but it’s not going to keep us down.”
Jonathan Romeo of The Herald reported this story from Durango, and Stephanie Alderton of The Journal reported from Cortez.