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Amid Theft, Colorado Ranchers Scramble to Locate Hay

Maureen Lunn
Creative Commons

One of ranching’s most basic materials is in high demand right now. With the price of hay doubling for some smaller operations along the Front Range, some are worried about finding enough of the livestock feed to make it through the winter.

The situation is so dire that in Larimer County, thefts are starting to occur.

Until this month, rancher Ted Swanson had only been the victim of theft once in his life.

“I had a bicycle stolen in Chicago many, many years ago,” he said.

Fast forward to Labor Day weekend. That’s when Swanson noticed about $5,000 worth of hay missing from his ranch north of Fort Collins.

Credit Grace Hood
Ted Swanson lost $5,000 worth of hay to thefts.

It had been sitting in his field near the side of the road.

“It was about a semi load,” he said. “And given that it was a mixture of sizes of square bales of alfalfa plus some round bales of grass, I think someone was just trying to get some hay to sell.”

Changes in Supply and Demand

Hay thefts aren’t new, and they’re generally isolated events says Larimer County Sheriff’s Office Representative John Schulz. But in recent months, the county has investigated four of them. And he says Larimer County isn’t alone.

“This is happening virtually nationwide,” he said.

California, New Mexico and even England have seen an uptick.

The rise in hay banditry isn’t surprising to Tess Norvell, who tracks hay prices for the U.S. Department of Agriculture MarketingService out of her office in Greeley.

“Either because of the price, how high it is right now or because a lot of people are desperate, trying to feed livestock or trying to get by,” she said.

The USDA estimates that the country’s alfalfa crop will be 16 percent lower compared to last year. Combine that with the ongoing drought, and the fact that a lot of straw in Northern Colorado is going to mitigate erosion inside the High Park burn zone, you can see why smaller outfits are having such a tough time…

“So people are starting to look for alternative measures or pushing livestock toward the market and culling cows,” said Norvell.

Difficult Choices

These circumstances have led to some difficult choices for Arden Nelson, who co-owns Windsor Dairyand also raises beef cows. With just a fraction of the hay he needs for the winter, he’s moved about 20 percent of his livestock to USDA land recently freed up for grazing in nearby Weld County.

“That’s an attempt to minimize the amount of hay we need,” said Nelson. But using this land isn’t necessarily cheaper for his bottom line.

And it’s far from ideal. Nelson’s bulls are used to two- or three-foot tall green grass. The 400 acres surrounding Nelson are yellow and brown.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Windsor Dairy recently moved 20 percent of its livestock to this USDA grazing land. “That’s an attempt to minimize the amount of hay we need,” said co-owner Arden Nelson.

“I’m sure they’re going to ball at us for two or three days saying will you please move us to a new pasture,” he said. “Guys that’s the new pasture and that’s all there is.”

Amongst shortages and high prices, Nelson still has to purchase hay for winter feed. But his dairy operation is organic. And finding organic feed is even harder. The good news is he’s located 1000 tons of the hay that used to supply another organic dairy.

The bad news?

“The only reason it’s not going there is they said they wouldn’t pay a price that’s that high,” he said. “Now whether we can have some of that hay and afford to pay for it remains to be seen. But at least I’ve found some.”

A Tough Winter

Back in Larimer County, Sheriff’s Department Representative John Schulz says it will be hard to track down lost hay unless there’s physical evidence left behind in footprints or fingerprints.

On Ted Swanson’s ranch, a front loader moves around large bales in the afternoon sun. While he didn’t have any success tracking down his culprit, he did make some changes.

“Put locks on all the gates, changed some padlocks,” he said.

But he knows that if someone’s desperate enough, there’s no way to completely stop it.

“If someone were really determined I don’t suppose it would stop them, but at least it would slow them down enough,” said Swanson.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like circumstances are improving anytime soon. The USDA’s Tess Norvell expects hay prices to continue to increase for smaller buyers this winter.

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