YELLOW JACKET – Sprouts from a volunteer crop of spring wheat in a field kept fallow during last year’s drought provided a reassuring sign earlier this month for Chris Neely.
“Last year, the only thing that would germinate was weeds, and there was hardly enough water for them,” said Neely, who farms some 1,200 acres with his father near Yellow Jacket.
This year’s heavy snowpack and generous spring precipitation have many farmers and ranchers in Southwest Colorado feeling more optimistic than last April, when they faced extreme drought.
Neely cautions that “it’s still early,” but he’s looking forward to getting three cuttings from alfalfa, which covers 80% of the fields his father and he have under cultivation.
Neely and other Dolores Project farmers are virtually assured a 100% allocation of irrigation water this year, a big change from last year, when the Dolores Water Conservancy District had to cut allocations to 70%.
The Dolores Project provides irrigation water for 28,000 acres of farmland in Montezuma and Dolores counties and for 7,700 acres of farmland for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the snowpack this year is among the fourth-largest ever recorded for the Dolores River Basin, while the 2017-18 snowpack was among the fourth smallest.
This season, water is expected to be so plentiful, Preston said, that the conservancy district will likely be able to create water pools, which allow farmers to purchase additional irrigation water above their allocations. An additional purchase of water will likely cost about $42 an acre foot, he said.
Preston said with good management, water is likely to be available through early October.
Beyond the deep snowpack, Tom Hooten, Montezuma County extension agent, said good spring rains have helped and will continue to be important for annual crops like beans and spring grains.
“Available moisture is directly related to yields,” he said. “The more yield from an acre, the more profitable you are for a set price,”
Full irrigation allotments are a relief for everyone who relies on water from McPhee Reservoir, which includes additional farmers served by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., Hooten said.
“It’s good news for people – especially because everyone suffered last year. It should provide them with a buffer economically.”
Neely, like most farmers in the Dolores Project, focuses on the most profitable crop in the region – alfalfa.
Preston said alfalfa grown at high altitude is nutrient-rich compared with alfalfa from lower elevations and that has made hay from Colorado desirable to dairies in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Colorado’s hot days and cool nights slow the growth of alfalfa, giving it more nutrients than grass grown at lower elevations, Neely said.
Bob Bragg, a farm management consultant in Cortez, said Montezuma County alfalfa producers received between $200 and $250 per ton of alfalfa or high-quality grass hay, which translates to between $1,020 to $1,275 per acre.
Pinto beans brought in about $20 per 100 pounds, generating about $245 per acre, he said.
Neely has begun using Teff grass in his hay crop rotation instead of wheat or oats. It allows him to use the same equipment he uses with his alfalfa, limiting expenses.
“Whether we have water or not, we try to keep costs down. We’re trying to make (farming) not just a lifestyle but a business, and make it profitable,” he said.
Neely does have one last concern for this year’s growing season:
“I wonder if it keeps raining and raining, whether we’ll ever get dry hay. It’s farming,” he said.