By Bill Tiedje
Months of unseasonably wet weather have delayed this year's hay crop for many Ouray County ranchers still rebounding from extremely dry weather last year.
Waiting for a break in the rainy conditions, many ranchers noted the surprising amount of moisture that the county received late this summer.
"It's just about the worst I've ever seen," said Wolf Ranch Manager John Jackson, who has worked on area ranches all his life.
Jackson described the need for several consecutive days of dry weather in order to cut, rake and bale hay that was of good quality.
Unlike other parts of the country, Jackson said only one or two cuttings of hay is possible each year in Ouray County, due to the altitude.
Jackson said he hoped a window of dry weather would materialize in the coming week, allowing the hay crop to be salvaged.
"It's better than being burned up," remarked Jackson, thankful for the accumulation of moisture in the mountains.
Ken Orvis, who raises hay for cattle and horses on his ranch south of Ridgway, echoed Jackson's sentiments, noting the overall benefits of the moisture but also stating this summer was one of the latest hay crops he could remember.
"If you don't take a chance soon, you're not going to have much to put into hay," said Orvis, describing the gamble ranchers took as they judged weather forecasts and historical weather trends.
Orvis explained that the hay crop's nutritional value began to decrease as it stood in the field past its prime.
"Overall, the moisture is going to be good, but we'll have to see what the fall does. It could dry up," said Orvis.
"I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen anything like it," said Christine Potter Witherspoon, sister of Potter Ranch managers Henry and Michael Potter.
"It's pretty scary," Witherspoon said, expressing concern as the hay crop is usually "put up" by Sept. 1.
Witherspoon said she hoped dry weather would return as an "Indian Summer" following the first significant freeze, a weather phenomenon described by many area ranchers.
Rancher Ralph Walchle said he expected hay prices to be in the range of $250 to $275 per ton, slightly below prices reached during drought conditions last year.
"Everybody's way behind," said Walchle, also pointing out that the moisture would eventually benefit the county's hayfields and high country pastures.
Walchle explained that much of the hay produced in the county is grass hay, rather than alfalfa, which would allow more forgiveness in producing a delayed and weather-damaged crop.
Daris Jutten, who ranches near Colona, said that a large amount of good quality hay was produced earlier in the summer, and he felt there would not be a hay shortage in the county this year.
"(The late moisture) has been a pain for hay, but we're also coming out of a drought," said Jutten.
Jutten, like the other ranchers, said the moisture would ultimately help improve spring runoff conditions, allowing for greater irrigation next summer.