BOULDER Three years ago, Boulder County rancher Bill Berg was yielding about 1,000 bales of hay from his fields.
It was plenty for him to feed his small, but growing, herd of cattle and plenty for him to sell for $4 to $4.50 a bale.
Last year, Berg was lucky to pull 450 bales from his land 9 acres of which had turned into a dust bowl.
Not having enough to feed his 12 head of cattle for his Ridge Ranch Cattle Co. grass-fed beef business, Berg shelled out anywhere from $10.50 to $14 a bale to buy more.
That was if he could find the hay.
The nationwide drought coupled with the fires in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma over the last few years is hampering the nations hay industry, putting increased financial pressure on area ranchers, businesses and nonprofit groups that rely on finding high-quality feed for their horses and steers.
The hay is worth more than my cows right now, Berg said.
The tightness in the industry also has forced some ranchers to give up their livestock and resulted in the creation of a black market.
During the last year, thieves hit a smattering of Boulder County farms including the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Riding Therapy and ran off with hundreds of bales.
Some local ranchers say theyre doing their best to weather the short-term woes, hoping that a wet spring could turn their fortunes around.
We need to get some rain or some snow this year or everybodys going to be in trouble, said Gina Elliott, co-owner of Boulder-based Colorados Best Beef company.
As of Jan. 31, large squares of supreme quality alfalfa grown in northeastern Colorado carried a value of $250 to $270 per ton, according to the latest Colorado Hay Report from the state arm of the U.S. Department of Agricultures Agricultural Marketing Service.
This time in 2010, those prices ranged from $110 to $120 per ton.
The wildfires that raged throughout Colorado last summer put added pressure on the states overall forage supply, said Tess Norvell, market reporter for the state AMS bureau.
Not only did the fires burn available grazing lands, but have also created added demand for straw to go back on the burn areas for reclamation, she wrote in an email to the Daily Camera. Add the fires to light yields and the fact that Colorado was already operating on limited carry-over of hay from the previous year (as a lot of Colorado hay was shipped to Texas in 2011 to assist its forage needs during the Southern drought last year) and our supplies are really down this year.
Concurrently, demand also has softened somewhat, she said. Some of the contributing factors include: a mild winter, producers selling calves earlier than normal, producers culling deeper into their herds and others growing more cash-strapped.
If the dry spate continues, there is a chance that prices could climb higher, she said.
The current weather conditions are expected to continue, said Matt Kelsch, meteorologist for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
Patterns can change, but right now theres not expected to be any major changes throughout this spring, he said, noting the global circulations are trending toward a drier La Niña event. Theres some confidence that were not going to have an exceptionally moist spring.