Arkansas Valley: “…there’s an abundance of hay because of the shortage of cattle” — Dale Mauch

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A more normal year for rainfall in the Arkansas Valley meant better yields for crops this year, but that may not translate into big financial gains for farmers.

“It really is tough. We’ve got crops, but there’s going to be people who made more with preventive planting (drought crop insurance) than they got for their crop,” said Lamar farmer Dale Mauch.

Rainfall for the area is about 93 percent of average on the year, although it has varied widely. Some areas flooded in early summer, while others are awaiting a break from the drought that began in 2010.

Some corn yields on irrigated land are topping 200 bushels per acre, but the cost per bushel is about $3 — half of what it was when crops were planted. Also, many acres were not planted in corn because it looked like another dry year might have been coming last spring.

“Corn dictates everything,” Mauch said. “Hay has followed suit, because there’s an abundance of hay because of the shortage of cattle.”

Cattle prices have soared this year after farmers thinned herds during the drought of the past three years.

“With all the rains, we grew a lot of weeds, but we didn’t have the cattle to eat them,” said Dan Henrichs, a Pueblo County rancher who also is the superintendent of the High Line Canal.

“I would imagine that the calf you sold three years ago for $1,000 would sell for $3,000 today,” he said.

Cattlemen still face tough choices of whether to keep cows to try to rebuild herds or sell them to pay the bills. Some also could face tax consequences from previous sales.

The high price of cattle also is making a dent on cattle feed lots in the Arkansas Valley.

“We’re slower than we were last year,” said Tyler Karney, manager of the Ordway Feedyard. “There are higher prices for cattle and a lower supply.”

At Ordway, there are about 35,000 cattle on the lot, which is 20,000 less than at the same time last year. The situation is similar at the Rocky Ford Feedyard.

“One of the biggest reasons is the drought of the last couple of years. People have reduced the size of their herds. This year, people are holding cows,” said Robert Petty, manager of the Rocky Ford operation.

The smaller numbers in feed yards has implications for farmers because they are buying less feed, adding to the oversupply and lower prices.

“The yields look great, but it’s not the bonanza you think it is,” Mauch said. “With prices where they are, it’s not enough to cover the expense of getting the crop in.”

More on the SE Colorado drought from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Grassland in Southern Colorado is making a comeback after taking a beating the last three years, but it will take a while to get anywhere close to normal.

“Range production is average or above average,” said Rich Rhoades, conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Pueblo. “It’s still poor in isolated spots.”

Grasses are coming back in, and the die-off so far has not been as severe as in the last three years.

“If we have another good year rain-wise, we could see a lot of improvement,” Rhoades said. “I think the further west you go, the better off you are.”

Summer rains benefited some of the warm-season grasses, but not at a sustainable level, said Bruce Fickenscher, Colorado State University Extension range specialist.

“The rain came as the warm-season grasses were peaking,” Fickenscher said. “It helped growth in the short term. But the grasses in a lot of places are dead, or have not filled in.”

Weeds — the kind that will blow and tumble after they freeze and break off — also popped up following the rains, but neither Rhoades nor Fickenscher expect them to be as big a problem as last year’s crop.

“Most the weeds are maturing out and are past their growth point,” Fickenscher said. “We’re always going to have tumbleweeds, but I think the level of management has been higher. I don’t think it will be as bad as last year.”

Ranchers are being encouraged not to graze too many cattle on new grass, and reseeding is probably too expensive an option for most, he added.

“The basic problem is still the subsurface moisture,” Fickenscher said. “Some of the areas haven’t recovered from drought for a long time, so they have to watch how they graze it.”

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

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