Making Hay while the sun sets

Column by Hal Walter

Agriculture – October 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

During haying season, if you drive out Hermit Road, due west out of Westcliffe, you might notice a huge monument to a way of life that is disappearing at an alarming rate as our region changes from a rural, mostly agricultural, economy to a growth-for-the-sake-of-growth development economy.

This monument is a haystack built from thousands of bales of Wet Mountain Valley grass. Some say it’s the best hay in the world, a mixture of mostly timothy grass sprinkled with fine-seed grasses and clover, a legume that adds to the protein value of the hay. The demand for this type of hay is rising as more and more people who move to the area turn a horse or two loose on their small acreage.

This, of course means that the price of this hay is also on the upswing. In fact, in the mid-1980s, $2.50 was a fair price for a bale of grass hay. Now the price is commonly $4, and liable to rise to $5 or $6, or even higher, as the supply diminishes in the winter months.

Predominantly the type of hay grown in our region is grass hay, which seems to fare well in our cool valleys above 7,500 feet. However, there is some alfalfa production in some of the lower-lying pockets such as Salida, Hillside and Wetmore.

Alfalfa hay usually has a higher protein content than grass hay, and farmers can get a higher yield from their land by getting more than one cutting per season from a field. However, alfalfa hay also normally requires more water and fertilizer to grow, and drier cutting conditions to harvest, than grass hay. And it is more susceptible to damage by insects.

Horse people often debate the merits of grass hay versus alfalfa hay. But it’s widely held that horses — critters that evolved on the grassy plains — are best fed grass hay, while other classes of domestic livestock such as cattle fare better on higher-protein alfalfa.

Generally speaking, a cow eats about two tons of hay in a winter and is pastured most of the warmer months. A horse that’s not on any pasture could eat upwards of five tons of hay in a year.

People who don’t own a large hay-eating animal probably don’t think twice about the semi-tractor loads of baled grass that leave the high mountain valleys of Central Colorado between late summer and spring. In terms of an actual cash commodity, it’s the only legal cultivated crop that’s produced in most of our region given the short growing seasons, rocky soils and bizarre weather patterns. Hay from our region is shipped to large dairy farms in New Mexico and horse ranches in Texas, as well as smaller livestock operations up and down the Front Range and beyond.

Paul Schneider, whose family has been farming in the Wet Mountain Valley since 1874, says his hay business is primarily people who have pet horses. “People’s pets is what we’re feeding mostly,” he says. “I encourage everybody to get another horse or mule.”

When Schneider turns off the balers, usually sometime around Halloween, his time is then taken up by transporting upwards of 20,000 bales of hay to these smaller one- and two-horse stables in places like Pueblo West, Black Forest and Parker. For the most part, his hay is sold before it’s even cut.

He says while his family started out raising horses and cultivating vegetables in the 1800s, hay production became a way of life in the 1940s and really kicked into gear in the 1960s when fertilization methods greatly improved. But the demand remains very high.

While not everyone who lives in our geographical region owns a horse, cow, burro, goat, sheep, or llama, the amount of hay that is grown and sold here should be of a concern to all who care about our way of life.

Hay farming is a sustainable business, though as a community we are not doing our best to sustain this economy. The money turns over many times in the small communities. In Custer County the annual hay crop, based on tonnage produced and a conservative price of $100 per ton, approaches $3 million.

Economic impact aside, the status of the farming industry tells us much about the health of our habitat. When the acreage devoted to hay farming begins to disappear, this land is becoming something else. We as residents are becoming something else too.

The figures are alarming.

The year 1983 was a very good year for hay production in Custer County, according to Colorado Agricultural Statistics. A whopping 30,306 tons of hay was grown on 13,600 acres of farmland. The harvest was several hundred tons higher than the two preceding years, but the actual acreage farmed remained fairly constant during this period. Even a decade later in 1993, the total acreage was still in the same ballpark with 23,900 tons raised on 13,000 acres.

And then the development boom struck. Suddenly a town with one grocery store, two gas stations and three taverns had a dozen real-estate offices. Business was much too good, and the corresponding reduction in hay acreage is certainly more than coincidence.

Two years later, in 1995, the total acreage for hay in Custer County was down to 11,700 total acres — a loss of 10 percent of hayfields in only two years. Ironically, 1995 was a banner production year for hay growers — the moisture and weather conditions allowed them to put up an incredible 28,080 tons on this reduced acreage. However, to put it all into perspective, the amount of productive hay acreage lost in Custer County since 1983 is equivalent to losing four farms the size of the Schneiders’.

The decline of hay farmland is not unique to Custer County, but actually endemic to most counties in Central Colorado, and worse in some.

Chaffee County farmers grew 21,400 tons of hay on 11,600 acres in 1983; in 1995 these farmers grew more hay — 23,100 tons — on less land — 10,500 acres. In 1983 Lake County farmers grew 1,200 tons on an even 1,200 acres; by 1995 these farmers had given up 66 percent of their hay acreage, down to 700 tons on 400 acres. Gunnison County went from 62,400 tons on 35,000 acres in 1983 to 30,150 tons on 20,100 acres in 1995 — a 43 percent loss in acreage.

Most staggering was the loss of hay production in Park County where farmers baled up 23,700 tons on 19,200 acres in 1983. In 1995, the hay harvest in Park County was reduced to a pitiful 5,415 tons on 5,700 acres.

The 70 percent loss in acreage in Park County is blamed almost entirely on the sale of water rights to Front Range cities which have yet to capitalize on their bad water karma by cutting and baling street medians. Schneider notes that he sells some of his hay to Park County ranchers who sold their water rights.

An oddity in our region is Saguache County, which actually saw an increase in hay production acreage from 1983 to 1995 — from 64,300 tons on 39,000 acres to 105,840 tons on 44,100 acres. Speculation is that farmers in Saguache have been converting pastureland to hayfields by installing center-pivot sprinkler systems.

Saguache County notwithstanding, it’s quite likely the figures for 1996 and 1997, when they are tallied, will tell of the further decline of agriculture in our region. While farmers have been able to make up for the loss of farmland by increasing the per-acre yield through the use of chemical fertilizers and more-efficient irrigating systems, the actual productive hayfields are disappearing.

In trade for our pastoral community, residents — both farmers and non-farmers — have been left holding the tab for the increased need for services such as improved roads, more law-enforcement and bigger schools.

The numbers speak for themselves, providing an interesting and sad commentary on just how much development has changed the socio-economic complexion of our region in such a short period in its history.

Westcliffe-area resident and Colorado Central columnist Hal Walter is investing as much money as he can afford into hay futures.