BREEN, Colo. - Joel Craig sat quietly among the audience of ranchers as dozens of cows shuffled in and out of the room, propelled by the fast-paced babble of the auctioneer. Craig was at the Hi-Country Cattle Auction to sell six of his pure-bred Limousin cattle because he doubts he will have the irrigation water to grow enough hay for all of his animals.
"The outlook isn't good," he said. "Without water, we're nothing."
Though April brought more than 20 inches of snow to Colorado's Front Range, Southwest Colorado has seen little of that spring moisture. And with a drier-than-normal winter coming on the heels of one of the driest years on record, this season is shaping up to be as bad as last year and possibly even worse for the region's ranching and agricultural operations.
Initial indicators show reservoir storage, field crops and native plants are going into the growing season in worse shape than 2012.
The Hi-Country Cattle Auction in Breen is one place where the effects of the season's dry conditions are playing out.
Dozens of animals for sale had bare patches, and their fur was stretched taut across the contours of their backbones and ribs. The animals' owner likely had run out of hay and couldn't afford to buy more, said Bob Kujath, an Oxford rancher at the auction.
Large squares of supreme-quality alfalfa hay in Southwest Colorado are $230 to $245 per ton, according to the latest Colorado Hay Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service. Two years ago, the prices ranged from $160 to $170 per ton. Prices increased dramatically as drought spread across the Southwest in 2012, but prices since have leveled out because hay consumers simply cannot afford to pay more than the current market price, said Randy Hammerstrom, officer in charge of USDA's market news service.
The tight hay market, combined with poor high-country and pasture grazing conditions has led many local ranchers to sell off part of their herds, said Chris Cugnini with Hi-Country Auction.
The number of cows going through the auction increased by about 2,000 from 2011 to 2012, and Cugnini said ranchers are dipping deeper into their herds this year as well.
Meanwhile, local hay farmers expect to produce even less than last year in large part because of bleak irrigation forecasts. The region's major reservoirs entered the water year with 24 percent to 69 percent less water than 2012 and then were hit with a season of below-average snowpack. Now, warm spring winds combined with dry soils are greatly depleting runoff flows.
It's "the worst case scenarios, all combined," said John Ey, superintendent of the Florida Water Conservancy District.
Irrigators depending on McPhee, Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs are slated to receive a fraction of their allocated stored water - Vallecito Reservoir irrigators will get about 80 percent, McPhee Reservoir irrigators are expecting about 23 percent and Lemon Reservoir irrigators are expected to receive 35 percent.
Florida Mesa farmers will receive irrigation water only through early to mid-July and will likely get just one cutting of hay, said Phillip Craig, a local hay farmer and president of the Florida Water Conservancy District's board of directors.
Eyeing current water forecasts, farmers have left fields fallow or planted crops such as oats that don't take as much water as hay. Doug Thurston, a farmer on the Florida Mesa, said he will be able to irrigate about two-thirds of the number of hay acres that he was able to last year.
It can take years for crop yields to return to normal after a season or two of drought, Craig said.
"It took us five years to recover from (the) 2002 (drought)," he said. "We've never gotten back to production we had pre-2002."
The region's forests and other public lands used for grazing haven't fared much better than agriculture. Last year was the 15th driest year on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Plants that were already starved for moisture after a warm, dry spring were subject to an equally dry fall. When winter's first snowfall finally did arrive, the ground already was frozen, so none of that moisture was absorbed.
Fall moisture is important because that is when plants regrow root systems. Plants weren't able to regrow roots last year, so they are going into the spring already stressed, said Mark Tucker, rangeland management program leader with the San Juan National Forest. In addition, many areas experienced heavier than normal grazing last year, putting them at a disadvantage going into this year.
"We don't have the forage production to (support) normal livestock numbers and season (length)," Tucker said.
For the 28 permittees who run cattle across the Columbine Ranger District, the news means they will likely have to shorten their grazing season and reduce the number of cattle they take up to the high country. Jared Whitmer, a rangeland management specialist with the ranger district, said many permittees will have to wait an additional one to two weeks before they can head up to the high country to allow plants more time to develop. The delay means some ranchers will have to buy more hay for their animals or to turn them out onto their poorer-producing hay fields.
In his initial assessments, Whitmer also noticed stock ponds and drainages that usually hold water this time of year are dry. Without that water, ranchers may be more limited in where they can graze their animals, which could stress some areas more than others, Tucker said-
Researchers at Colorado State University have studied drought's ripple effects. In a survey about last year's drought conditions, 90 percent of respondents from Southwest Colorado reported below-average forage yields while 35 percent reported selling livestock in response to the drought.
If the drought persists, 34 percent of Southwest Colorado respondents said there was a 50 percent or greater chance they will leave the industry in the next five years while a third suggested they sought additional off-farm employment in response to the drought.
Trent Taylor, a dryland farmer on the Fort Lewis Mesa said steep declines in his crop production have led him to seek off-farm income. His wife started teaching, and he has bought a few rental properties.
"I'm hedging my bets," he said.