SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
On Aug. 20, Phillip Craig’s water ran out. With just 4,000 bales of hay – half of what he normally produces – his growing season was done.
Craig’s tale is common as the worst drought in more than 50 years spreads across the country. Water is running out, hay is in short supply, and food prices are skyrocketing.
Local farmers and ranchers say if this winter doesn’t produce enough snow, the parched reservoirs won’t fill for next summer, and the food producers could end up in even worse shape.
“As dry as it is now, if we don’t get a good, heavy snow we’re really going to be in trouble next year,” Craig said.
It’s a double-edged sword, though.
If this winter doesn’t produce enough snow, Craig won’t have water come spring to water his crops. But if the snow comes too soon, he’ll have to start feeding his cattle and horses early what little hay he has stored.
It’s still up in the air how much snow the Four Corners will receive this winter, with the atmospheric pattern neither an El Niño, nor a La Niña, Joe Ramey, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said earlier this month.
“This year really has no preferred storm track, and that tends to produce wildcard winters,” he said. “They’re extremely dry or extremely wet because there is no storm track.”
Low crop yield
In a normal season, Craig produces 8,000 to 10,000 bales of hay, 4,000 of which he sells. This year, he got about 20 percent of what he normally produces in his first cutting, a fairly normal second cutting and a “really good third cutting because it stayed warm for so long.” He might have made up for the loss of the first cutting if he hadn’t run out of irrigation water.
Dolores farmer Tad Willbanks saw about a 30 percent decrease in his hay yield this year.
Wellbanks and Craig are selling their hay for about $10 a bale, a sharp increase over the $6 to $7 a bale consumers saw in prosperous years.
One of Wellbanks’ buyers has had a particularly harsh year.
Diane McCracken runs the Spring Creek Horse Rescue, and she’s seen an increase in horse owners who can’t take care of their equestrians because of the hay shortage and steep prices.
“This year, there’s a lot more people giving up their horses because they can’t find hay or afford it. It’s going to be a rough year,” she said. “People have lost their jobs and lost their homes. With the hay shortage on top of that, they just can’t do it.”
The rescue also operates as the La Plata County hay bank, and it’s 300 bales short this year. The hay bank secured about 515 bales through donations last year, but, so far this year, it’s received only 40 bales.
The La Plata County Humane Society hasn’t seen an increase in phone calls reporting malnourished horses, but Director of Animal Protection Jon Patla said that it’s just a matter of time.
“I do suspect we will (see an increase in calls), especially once the snow starts to fly,” he said. “In other years, when we have had hay shortages, there’s no question that the call loads increase.”
Rising food prices
It’s not just horses affected by the hay shortage. Some ranchers have had to sell off part of their herds or drastically increase their prices because of the hay and corn shortage, and those costs have been passed onto consumers.
Holly Zink, owner of Sunnyside Farms Market, said her meat supplier, East Pines Ranch, increased its prices by about 15 percent to cover the increase in feed prices, which she’s had to pass on to her customers.
Ground beef and chicken prices have risen. Zink gets her chicken from a ranch in California that also raised prices because of rising feed costs.
“There are some shortages in protein due to the reduction of production on the farmers end, specifically bison,” Zink said. “Herd sizes are lower because growers pulled back production foreseeing what would happen with feed prices.”
Craig said he’s been selling his calves at $1.80 per pound, up from the $1 a pound he has seen in past years.
More farmers filing for crop insurance
Corn and soybean prices reached record highs over the summer, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows the average corn yield at 122 bushels per acre – the lowest yield since 1995’s 113 bushels per acre – despite the almost 88 million acres of corn harvested.
With that drop in yield per acre, a September USDA report shows more than $1.42 billion in crop-insurance claims filed early have been paid out.
Texas was the first state in the nation in claims paid, with about $519 million going toward early filings. Colorado was third, with about $66 million in claims paid.
Local officials said they haven’t seen an increase in the number of farmers filing claims, but Cathy Topper has seen farmers increasing their coverage.
Topper, owner of Topper Insurance in Cortez, mostly covers bean and wheat farmers and said farmers are upgrading their coverage because of the drought.
Ronnie Posey, county executive director of the Farm Service Agency, which provides financial assistance for noninsurable crops, said farmers have until Dec. 2 to upgrade their policy or sign up for new policies.
Posey encourages farmers to report their crop acreage to the agency – even if they don’t sign up for the financial-assistance program – to establish a 10-year history, which later is used to determine how much farmers should be reimbursed if they filed a claim.
If a farmer does file a claim and has not established a 10-year history, the agency determines the farmers’ acreage and average crop yield by using the county average, which Posey said typically is lower.
Craig said he is considering purchasing insurance for some of his crops in response to the drought.
“If we don’t get a real good winter, there’s no way we’re going to replace the water and might not have any (crops) next year,” he said. “We’re always optimistic, but we have to wait and see if it snows.”