DURANGO Its early spring, and the first cutting of hay on John Baughmans ranch east of Durango is still months away. But work to prepare for that period of intense activity is already under way.
Im dragging fields with an English harrow to break up manure clods, Baughman explained while feeding some of last years hay to 30 Angus-cross beef cattle. If manure gets too dry, it doesnt break up and you can find pieces in hay bales.
The manure is from the same cattle that, returning in October from summer pasture in the mountains, feed on what would be a third cutting of hay. The first cutting is scheduled for mid-June, the second in mid-August.
Its cheaper if they eat the hay than if I sell it and then buy some to feed them, Baughman said.
Baughman, 66, who has 90 acres of hayfields north of Elmores Corner, spent his youth on a ranch near Wiggins on the eastern plains.
Ive never wanted to do anything other than ranch, Baughman said. The dream of my life was to own my own ranch.
Although urban development has gobbled up acreage in La Plata County, hay production, surprisingly, is holding its own, statistics show.
In fact, more hay is being grown now than in 1945, according to statistics from the local Colorado State University Extension office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers planted 28,000 acres of hay in 1945 and 30,900 acres in 2008. Acreage peaked at 38,900 in 1992.
Growing hay makes sense, said Doug Ramsey, a soil scientist with the USDAs Natural Resources Conservation Service in Durango. Before they built Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs, they grew dry-land beans and wheat. But in this rolling country, its a lot easier to grow hay than row crops.
Baughmans ranching dreams were decades in the making. He spent two years in the military and then earned an undergraduate degree in history and a masters degree in kinesiology at Western State College in Gunnison.
He worked in business and taught at two high schools on the Front Range before arriving in Durango to begin 20 years at Durango High School. There he taught health and history and coached wrestling.
Over the years, he acquired various parcels of land, which he sold to buy the acreage north of Elmores Corner.
Hay is a perennial, and with proper nutrition and water, grows on its own each summer.
Ordinarily, you replant every eight to 10 years, Baughman said. But we have some fields that are producing well after 15 years, so we leave them alone.
After replanting, it takes a couple of years for a field to return to full production, he said.
Farming is no slam-dunk, Baughman said. He contends with fickle weather, water shortages, fluctuating petroleum prices and pests such as grasshoppers.
He perseveres because farming is his life, Baughman said. This year, he is starting the hay season with a special concern fertilizer.
Once the cow manure is evenly spread, Baughman usually applies commercial fertilizer.
Hay production is directly proportional to the amount of fertilizer, he said.
But this year, he is leaning toward omitting the commercial fertilizer because of cost.
Its all tied to the spike in the price of petroleum, Baughman said. A few years ago, I paid $300 a ton for fertilizer. This year, it could jump to $700 a ton.
Absolutely right, Tom Campbell at Basin Co-op said Monday. The current price for standard blend is $704 a ton. The price was $309 a ton in 2003, then climbed steadily to $725 in 2009 before dropping to $620 last year.
It gives pause, Baughman said, because experts recommend that 200 to 300 pounds of fertilizer per acre be spread.
Jerry Zink at Sunnyside Farms apparently is the only producer of certified organic hay in La Plata County.
Zink said Wednesday he gets 8,000 bales from 80 acres near the Florida River. Instead of artificial fertilizer, he relies on the manure from lambs that graze the land to provide nutrients for hay growth. The crop is certified as organic by the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
Baughman said the next phase of hay production should start around May 1 when a ditch off the Florida River that provides water for area stockmen and farmers is opened.
But it doesnt always go as planned because weather is variable, Baughman said. In February 2010, the deep snow melted quickly.
The upshot was a late opening of the ditch, which, compounded by little summer rain, produced a pitifully small hay crop.
Baughman said he got 6,500 bales of hay last year, compared with 13,000 in 2006.
Baughmans hay, composed of 70 percent timothy, brome and orchard grass and 30 percent alfalfa, is bought by many area horse owners.
He gets top dollar for his hay, but there is no great margin of profit.
He sells his best hay for $7 a bale, but it costs $4 to $5 per bale to produce.