Three cuttings for some
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Roaring Fork Valley ranchers were able to “make hay while the sun shines,” as the saying goes, growing a bumper crop of hay this year.
But ranchers who depend on income from all that hay may not be enjoying the kind of sales that would make this a year for significant profits as well as massive production.
That, according to one area expert, is because there currently is a lot of hay available for sale but not a lot of buyers, because most of the growers on the Western Slope experienced the same great hay-growing weather and hay does not travel well over long distances.
Pat McCarty, who retired in July as the Colorado State University Extension agent for Garfield County, confirmed for The Sopris Sun on Monday that 2015 was a good summer for growing hay.
“There is a gigantic crop,” said McCarty, who lives on Morissania Mesa near Parachute.
“But, along with it, the demand is down in the entire area,” he added.
All over the Roaring Fork Valley, the abundance of hay is evident in hay barns and other storage areas, many of which seem stuffed to bursting.
Ranchers have gotten up to three cuttings of hay over the summer, thanks to a plethora of rain in the spring and early summer followed by days or even weeks of relatively dry weather.
Hay was commanding as much as $250-$500 per ton a few years ago, and there was plenty of demand to keep the prices high, McCarty said.
“We used to have lots of horse ranches and operations that would buy the hay,” he said, and the area’s ranchers were eager to expand their hay crops to meet that demand.
But the Great Recession seems to have sapped the vitality of the market, McCarty continued. He also blamed the poor market for hay, in part, on the out-migration of workers forced to move by the ongoing slump in gas drilling in the western part of Garfield County.
Many of those working in the gas industry, and living in semi-remote areas with a little land of their own, would keep horses on that land.
But, he said, “There isn’t much of that any more.”
The result has been a decrease in demand even as supplies this year grew exponentially.
“I’ve actually had guys call me and say, ‘Jeez, Pat, I can’t get anybody to buy my hay,’” McCarty said.
He noted that, while he is “not in the loop” like he once was, he has heard that hay prices now stand as low as $150 per ton, and “it’s a buyer’s market. It’s great for them (buyers).”
Another problem with the local hay market, he said, is that the same beneficial weather pattern came to the entire Western Slope, not just Garfield County, so there is not a lot of demand for shipping hay to nearby communities.
As for sending it farther afield, McCarty said, “It’s very expensive. Generally, you don’t see hay being hauled very far.”
An incredible year
Others have confirmed McCarty’s statements.
“It’s been the most incredible year for hay that we’ve ever seen,” said Marge Perry, who with her husband, Bill Fales, runs a ranch just south of Carbondale.
But, she added, the resultant glut of hay has a down side.
“You can’t sell it,” she said. “You can’t give it away.”
She said classified ads in an agricultural publication, The Fence Post in Greeley, lately have offered hay for free to anyone who wants to haul it away.
But luckily, Perry said, their ranch does not depend on the market for selling hay.
“Oh, we may sell a ton or so,” said Perry, “but we usually just feed most of it to our cows.” She noted that they run a couple hundred head of cattle that need the hay to make it through the winter.
The same story holds true for the nearby Sewell family, who also grow hay primarily for feed.
“It was a banner year,” confirmed Jayme Sewell, whose husband, Jason, is a fifth-generation rancher and runs his family’s historic property.
But she said the Sewells’ 70-head herd of cattle generally consume whatever the ranch produces, which puts the family, like many others in the area, in the position of not having to pay a lot of attention to the swings of the hay market.
“Everybody that I know of, personally, they’re growing for sustenance,” she said. “Of course, they will sell their excess.”
She added that there are other areas in Colorado, such as the Grand Valley near Grand Junction and the eastern plains, where vast acreage and a longer growing season create better conditions for growing hay for sale.
“This is not ideal hay-growing landscape here,” she remarked, at least not for someone in the business of growing hay as a money crop in and of itself.
“It was a fantastic year,” enthused Felix Tornare, who runs Milagro Ranch on Missouri Heights, a few miles north of Carbondale. “We haven’t seen it like this in a long, long time.”
With his wife, Sarah, Tornare, a Swiss immigrant, also owns the Louis Swiss Pastry business in Aspen. Like others, Tonare was worried when the skies dried up in the middle of the 2014-2015 winter, but was overjoyed when storms dumped snow on the mountains in the early spring and the rains followed suit.
He said the abundance of moisture and cooperating weather meant he was able to get three big cuttings out of his own hay crop, and was kept plenty busy as a contract hay-cutter for other growers.
As for the market, he said he has not noticed a slump, although he characteristically sells to buyers who have bought from him before.
“People know what you put up, and they want to buy that,” he said proudly. “We put up super-nice horse hay.”
He said he sells to large horse-boarding operations and others that characteristically do not grow their own hay.
Published in The Sopris Sun on November 12, 2015.