Here’s Part I of Chris Woodka’s drought special report running in The Pueblo Chieftain:
In the catalog of what can go wrong in farming, drought occupies a spot near the top. Farmers can borrow money, shoulder more expensive production costs and weather low prices. They can diversify their crops to prevent disease or hail from wiping them out. They can find cattle to rebuild herds after a disastrous sudden blizzard. Even in a down economy, they can usually find jobs in town to supplement their income. Through everything, the tools they use the most are resiliency and optimism.
But without water, nothing grows. And the current drought is among the worst on record for the Lower Arkansas Valley. “This country is remarkable,” said John Davidson, who ranches on the Purgatoire River south of Las Animas. “A couple of good rains would green up the grass and we’d forget all about this.”
For the last three years, it’s been hard to forget the drought, and this summer is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for the valley. “I think we’re headed for problems,” said Chad Hart, Bent County executive for the Farm Service Agency. “This will be a tell-tale year. Even the good farmers who did everything right . . . if they don’t have a crop, how are they going to pay?”
Las Animas, already reeling from the closure of the prison at Fort Lyon last year and decades of tough economic hits, is the heart of the coming storm. People in the area are selling all or part of their cattle herds, cutting back on farm-related purchases and leaving most of their farm ground fallow. Hart estimated that more than half of Bent County’s cattle have been sold.
Dryland farmers are bracing for the third year of drought, and likely no crops. Ranchers are running out of grass. Irrigated farms benefitted from a big snowfall in 2011 and held on last year, but this year nearly all of the agricultural wells in the Arkansas Valley are curtailed. Ditch companies have nearly exhausted stored water and can’t find any more to lease — they expect the runs to be the same or worse than last year.
Problems also are felt in town. Las Animas, already rocked by years of economic downturn, has lost two restaurants as well as a feed and fuel distributor. “Several businesses have closed, and part of that is Fort Lyon and part the drought. We don’t see the farmworkers like we have in the past,” said Bill Long, a Bent County commissioner who owns the Dairy Queen in Las Animas. “There’s just not any work for them to do.”
From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):
This year’s first hay cutting can’t come soon enough for buyers who are dealing with the tightest supplies on record and still paying all-time high prices. Unfortunately, those dairymen, cattle feeders and horse owners will be waiting longer than normal to get their hands on hay this year, local farmers and agronomists said, and prices aren’t expected to drop anytime soon.
The abundance of moisture in northeast Colorado during April was much needed after months of drought, but the freezing temperatures that came with those snowstorms weren’t ideal for most crops. Alfalfa and hay cutting in most years kicks off around Memorial Day weekend — often following an April and May that feature temperatures in the 70s, which are ideal for growth. However, farmers said it could be well into June before they can finally cut this year.
This spring has so far included an April that saw low-temperature records broken on nine different days in Greeley, and a May that’s expected see temperatures this week near 90 degrees. As a result of the extreme conditions, hay and alfalfa in some area fields is only about one-third the height it should be at this time of the year, said Bruce Bosley, a cropping systems specialist for Colorado State University Extension. Alfalfa and hay growers like to do four cuttings per year, but Bosley said not getting a first cutting done until well into June could put a “crimp” in having time for a fourth cutting before the end of this year’s growing season. “We take what we can get, and we’ll take the recent moisture,” Bosley said, referring to the barrage of snow in April that’s left the Greeley area more than 40 percent ahead of normal this year for precipitation. “But these temperatures haven’t helped anything. It seems like we in agriculture can always find something to complain about,” he added with a slight laugh.
The local issues, limited supplies nationally and continued drought in other parts of the U.S. — including southern Colorado — leave experts questioning how much the hay situation in northeast Colorado and elsewhere will improve this year.
In February 2011, prior to the historic Texas drought and the widespread U.S. drought of 2012, prices for high-quality alfalfa in northeast Colorado sat at about $140-$150 per ton, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. For the past two years, though, prices have been nearly double that and remained at $250-$300 per ton last week, according to USDA numbers. With hay prices high and supplies limited, there were 15 reports of hay theft in 2012 in Weld County — more than double what it had been the year before.
A recent USDA report showed that hay stocks on May 1 were at a record low — 14.2 million tons. The USDA began its May 1 report in 1960, and the prior low for U.S. hay stocks on that date was 15 million tons in 2007. On Dec. 1, 2012, U.S. hay stocks were 76.5 million tons — also the smallest since USDA began its annual Dec. 1 report.
According to a report from the Livestock Marketing Information Center in Denver, record-high costs rationed hay use this winter as producers searched-out alternative feedstuffs and reduced their livestock numbers. Between Dec. 1, 2012, and May 1, hay usage totaled 62.4 million tons, the smallest since 1976-77 — another major drought period.
Mike Veeman, whose family has dairies and farms in Weld, Morgan and Logan counties, said hay prices forced him to change his feed rations for his cows, depending less on high-quality alfalfa. He expressed optimism on Monday, though, that the abundance of precipitation will continue throughout the growing season, improving production and helping lower all prices for livestock feed — corn included. Others weren’t as optimistic.
“I’m just not sure the situation is going to improve greatly any time soon,” said Floss Blackburn with Denkai Animal Sanctuary, whose organization has had to limit the number of horses it has rescued for the past several months because of feed shortages. Earlier this year, Denkai had to go as far as Vancouver, Canada, to find an affordable source of hay.
“There’s still a long way to go,” said Blackburn.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):
April snowshowers brought some relief to the parched Colorado high country, but they look more like an aberration than a trend, speakers said at the State of the Rivers meeting on Monday. “I guess we can be really thankful for April of this year because if it hadn’t been for April, we would have been in a real bad spot,” Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service said to about 60 people at the meeting in the Colorado Mesa University Center.
The immediate and longer-term outlook, however, is less like April and more like a continuation of the drought. Forecasts for the May-June-July period are for greater probabilities for higher-than-normal temperatures and less precipitation, Strautins said. The probabilities run as well toward higher-than-normal temperatures for the June-July-August period.
Even with the April snowfall, the likelihood of major reservoirs filling is remote, said Erik Knight, hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Runoff this spring also will be muted, Knight said. Green Mountain Reservoir, which is frequently used to supplement summer flows through the Grand Valley, is likely to reach the 89 percent full mark based on current estimates, Knight said.
On the Gunnison River side of the Grand Valley, Paonia Reservoir is likely to fill, but Taylor and Blue Mesa reservoirs are not. The Aspinall Unit, a series of reservoirs on the Gunnison, including Blue Mesa, is a major storehouse of water for the state and is managed in part to ensure that Colorado releases enough water to meet its obligations under the 1922 Compact under which the Colorado River is managed. It was 41 percent full on Monday.
Low snowfalls overall will contribute to about 3 million acre feet of water flowing down the Colorado River system into Lake Powell. That’s about 42 percent of the long-term average, Knight said.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
For smaller farms, the cuts come harder. Anita Pointon and her husband Chuck grew up on farms under the Fort Lyon Canal, and have had their own farming operation near Las Animas since 1990. They weathered the 2002 drought. But the current drought has been much harder. “In 2002, we had seven runs of water, and were able to grow a partial crop. It wasn’t pretty, but it was something,” Mrs. Pointon said.
This year, only one-fifth of their ground, about 50 acres of established alfalfa, will be irrigated. “We probably won’t have a cash income this year,” she said. While the Pointons receive crop insurance, the payments go down every year there is no crop, or if there is a reduced yield. “It’s on a five-year average, and we did not have a good yield in 2011 or 2012,” Mrs. Pointon said.
In a normal year, they would grow corn, wheat and sorghum as well as hay. The yield for alfalfa will be down this year. “Four cuttings of alfalfa is normal, and this year we’ll be lucky to get one and a half,” she said.
So far, they have not made deep cuts in their herd of about 50 cow-calf pairs. “We’ll have to cull those down if we don’t get rain,” she said. “If we get water, we would plant cane.”
The long-term downturn in the farm economy already has hit the Las Animas area hard. “If you need tractor parts, you have to drive to Rocky Ford or Lamar. Either way, it’s an 80-mile trip for a $10 part.”
Last year was a difficult one for most farmers, but this year is shaping up to be worse. “Last year, the people with wells were able to get a crop, but it wasn’t a big crop. Our last run was June 20,” Mrs. Pointon said. “Our neighbors are in the same situation and won’t be planting this year. But we’re all optimists, or we wouldn’t be in this business.”
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
The farmers who started the Fort Lyon Canal Co. knew they were pushing water onto land in an arid climate. Irrigation made farming possible despite spells of drought that could last for months or even years. But the drought of 2011-12 already is exceptional among those recorded since the Fort Lyon began keeping records at Las Animas in 1868.
The rainfall is measured for the water year, which runs Nov. 1-Oct. 31. Both years recorded only half of the average 12.4 inches of precipitation, something that has not happened since 1893-94.
If 2013 is as dry, it would mark the driest period since that time. It would be worse for farmers because irrigation water is more scarce even as natural conditions deteriorate.
The drought of the 1890s was arguably worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when blowing dirt pelted the buildings in and around Las Animas. There was substandard rainfall from 1888-94, with the average for that entire span less than 8 inches, compared with 10 inches average annual rainfall in the 1930s. The driest years of the 1930s were 1937, with 6.35 inches, and 1934, with 6.35 inches. In 2002, 4.10 inches of rain fell at Las Animas, the second-lowest total on record — there were only 2.14 inches in 1894. But 2002 was surrounded by mostly average or above average years, making it more tolerable.
In fact, up until 2010, Las Animas enjoyed a run of seven above-average rainfall years. Since November 2010, the yearly rainfall has only been 6.5 inches and has been clustered so that only a couple of months — June 2011 and April 2012 — were at average.
So far in 2013, rainfall is again far below average, with some snowfall in April. But the storms that moved through the state last week largely missed Bent County.
From The Trinidad Times Independent (Steve Block):
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a drought designation for Las Animas, Huerfano, Alamosa, Conejos and Costilla counties that enables producers to qualify for financial assistance to compensate for some of the impacts of the drought.
Bernie Barela, executive director of the county Farm Services Agency (FSA) office, said producers who want to apply for assistance should call the Pueblo FSA office at (719) 543-8386, ext. 2, for more information. Barela said her local office doesn’t handle the assistance applications. She said she certainly understands why some producers might need some help, given the drought conditions in the county…
The May 8 announcement from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said that Costilla County had been named as a primary natural disaster area because of the recent exceptional drought. Las Animas and Huerfano Counties each share a contiguous border with Costilla County, qualifying them for federal assistance through the Consolidated Farm and Redevelopment Act as contiguous disaster counties under the act’s provisions.