It’s Monday night and I have just finished cutting this year’s hay. This is the earliest I have ever cut our hay in 32 years.
The only time that has been worse was 2002 when we had no hay to cut. While we are exceedingly dry now, my hay is not as bad as I would have expected. We were lucky that we had some irrigation water early that allowed me to get the ground saturated. Our irrigation water was turned off May 22 as the La Plata River continued to shrink to a trickle, and I am forced to cut the hay now as it begins to show signs of stress because of lack of moisture.
Our irrigation water comes from the tiny La Plata River that is currently running at about 30 cubic feet per minute – about one-fourth of what it would normally be flowing at this time or year.
While I will have some hay for the sheep in the barn, the critical issue is going to be the grass to feed them through the long summer still to come. With the loss of our irrigation water three weeks ago (about seven weeks earlier than last year) and no real precipitation since March, my pastures are quickly drying up and will be of little use for the ewes and lambs through the long summer to come.
The hard choices will be whether to try and raise the lambs by feeding hay until I can provide them to my customers, or sell them at the sale barn for a loss and save my hay and pasture for the ewes. In 2002 when we produced no hay, we ended up feeding purchased hay for most of 18 months to get our sheep through all of 2002 until the spring of 2003.
As I look around Southwest Colorado, I see this drought having some major effects on agriculture. The rangeland already needs moisture, and any hope that we have a good monsoon season will not be realized for at least another month or longer. The loss of our snowpack earlier in the spring has a significant effect on our vegetation. The sooner the snow melts along with the warmer spring temperatures, the longer the time that the plants need to survive on the limited soil moisture, making the dry summer period effectively longer and harder for the plants and the animals.
It will be a tough year for many livestock producers in our area as we are just greeting the beginning of a long summer next week.
Doug Ramsey has farmed in La Plata County for more than 30 years. He can be reached at 385-4375.