A hefty snowpack in most parts of Colorado heading into spring is good news for state hay growers, says Tess Norvell, reporter with USDA-Colorado Department of Agriculture Market News in Greeley.

“We’ll get river run-off and the reservoirs will be filled up,” she says. “It looks like we’re going to have enough irrigation water this year.”

Statewide, the mountain snowpack averaged 111% of normal as of late February. That’s a marked turnaround from last year’s level, which was just 74% of normal. The prime alfalfa-growing regions in the state, the South Platte River Valley and the Arkansas River Valley, had snowpack levels of 145% and 100%, respectively.

However, a few areas in southern Colorado show below-average precipitation for the current water year that began last October, according to a recent report from the state’s Water Availability Task Force. Moderate-to-exceptional drought conditions remain on the state’s eastern plains, and drought conditions redeveloped in the southwest during February.

Overall, though, water storage levels in all basins are better than they were at this time a year ago, the report shows.

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Sluggish demand has kept Colorado hay prices considerably lower than they were a year ago. As of Feb. 27, Market News was reporting $220-230/ton for large squares of premium alfalfa in the state’s northeastern region and $250/ton in the southeast. In both regions, the price is off $10-25/ton from year-ago prices.

“There was a lot of lower-quality hay produced during the growing season. Because we have so much of it, the price on everything has been pulled down,” Norvell says.

Winter weather could also be playing a role in keeping demand and prices in check. “They’ve had the snow in the mountains, but on the plains, we’ve had a very mild winter. So we haven’t been feeding up a lot of hay. A lot of people have had cows out on corn stalks for most of the winter. That’s very unusual.”

Weather will also help determine the direction of prices in the months ahead. “I don’t see them coming up anytime soon, especially if it continues raining through the spring,” says Norvell. “We should have some pretty good pastures.”

Several wildcards could impact hay prices, she adds. Demand for alfalfa could get a boost from better milk prices, “although we haven’t seen much of that yet.”

The drought in California and neighboring states could also put pressure on Colorado supplies. She’s heard several reports of California livestock producers looking to buy Colorado hay. “As far as I know, there haven’t been any sales at this point, but there is definitely some buzz about it.”

To contact Norvell, call 970-353-9750 or email her at tess.norvell@ams.usda.gov.

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