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Steamboat Magazine

Routt County's Fields of Gold

12/08/2015 01:52PM ● By Dan Greeson

When American Pharaoh took horse racing’s prestigious Triple Crown, Doug DeCosta, owner of Yampa-based Colorado Hay Company, was whooping for joy. His alfalfa was fueling a champion. Doug ships hay all over the country and has exported overseas to countries like Japan, where Routt County hay has garnered a reputation for its impressive quality. 

“What makes Routt County hay so good is the high elevation and a big winter,” says Ray Selbe, owner of Selbe Farms, located two miles west of the River Bend Cabins in Steamboat Springs. 

Ray grows hard red winter wheat and spring barley on his ranch, shipping the harvest each year to locations across Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He, too, has been contacted by prospective buyers from as far away as the Middle East. 

Harvesting a first-rate crop every time haying season arrives is a science. 

“A big winter is really important for us because it’s how we get our water,” Ray says. “Elevation is also important because the dairy industry is always searching for the nutrition in high country hay.” 

Routt County’s mountainous setting works wonders for the nutritional content of hay. “The high altitude gives it good timothy content,” Doug says. Timothy is a type of grass that grows abundantly in the valley. Its high fiber content makes it a common staple in the diets of horses and cattle, and its coarse texture is important for the dental health of livestock. Dairy farmers seek this high-energy, high fiber blend of grass to improve milk production from their cows. 

“At higher altitude, the hay’s got more punch to it,” Doug says. “If you go to Texas, the hay is five feet tall but it just doesn’t have the same nutrition as high altitude hay.” 

The Yampa Valley produces over 100,000 tons of hay per year. Former Nordic ski jumper Brendan Doran puts up over 200 tons for Ray, working as an independent hay harvester. 

“We always try to get the hay bales below 10.5% moisture content when we’ll be using them to feed cows and we’re going to be stacking them outside,” Brendan says. “Putting it up right is also important, if you want to make sure it’s good hay. Eighty-five degrees and 10 mile-per-hour winds is great curing weather for hay.” 

Despite the prime haying conditions that Routt County offers, area ranchers still have to tackle a plethora of tricky issues each haying season. Weather is a nuisance, especially to contractors like Brendan because of how crucial dryness is when hay is stored. 

“When you’re shipping hay out for other people to store it you have to make sure that it’s dry,” Brendan says. “When you pack wet hay together, it starts to chemically break down and create heat. It can actually start a barn on fire if you store wet hay in there. That’s why we always keep a moisture tester in the bale chute.” 

“Excessively wet hay also loses a lot of its nutritional value,” says Doug. “When hay gets rained on, it starts to lose color, loses its vitamin A and starts to get moldy. When the hay turns yellow, it can really only be used as cow hay. Cows don’t mind it.” 

There are also grazing issues. Brendan explains that if the ranch’s crop does not get fertilized enough during fall grazing, the only other option is to use chemical methods to fertilize the crop. This, Brendan says, can be “cost prohibitive.” 

The hay of Routt County, like its people, is exceptional because of its mountain surroundings and the passage of long, trying winters. Haying season has left an undeniable mark on the very identity of Routt County, just as the ranchers of Routt County leave a unique mark of quality on their bounty of gold every haying season.