At hay farms across Colorado, farmers and ranchers are preparing for their annual harvest. Workhorse tractors mowing vast stretches of green fields in Colorado’s plains and alpine valleys will soon be a common sight. But with the risk of summer rains posing a constant threat, hay growers must work tirelessly to—as the old saying goes—make hay while the sun shines.
Hay doesn’t like to be wet. At a moisture content of only 15 percent, hay bales begin to experience dangerous heating that can lead to spontaneous combustion. Exploding bales can trigger devastating fires capable of burning down whole barns and everything inside. To manage this threat, hay growers must work quickly to mow their fields, dry their hay, pack it into bales, and ready it for distribution before the next round of rainy weather moves in. It’s a balancing act that demands resilience.
Fortunately, farmers and ranchers maintain a variety of modern equipment to help them get the job done. Their historic counterparts, however, did not enjoy such luxuries. In the early days of haying, fields were cut by hand with sickles and scythes. The hay was then manually dried, bunched, and stacked. It was labor intensive work begging for improvement. Primitive mowers were developed, along with contraptions like stackers, sleds, and cages filled by giant forks. Work horses leant their strength to operating the new equipment, but large numbers of hardy laborers were still required to manually round out the tops of the hay bales with pitchforks to allow the bales to shed water.
Additional improvements continued to spread throughout hay farms over the decades that followed, but the biggest advancement came in 1971, when a transformational invention was unveiled. That invention was called the Vermeer big round baler.
The idea for the big round baler was first thought up in 1936, when a farmer from Iowa invented its precursor, a square baler that didn’t work very well. Decades later, a critical redesign by another Iowa farmer named Gary Vermeer turned that early prototype into a one-person hay-baling system that unlocked a new level of productivity. The job of baling hay, that once required the labor of several men, could now be completed by a single person operating the big round baler.
In Colorado, from the highest elevations down to the lowest valleys, hay is a major industry. It supports over 60 hay producing farms across the state. According to the December 2022 Agricultural Yield Survey conducted by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Colorado farmers and ranchers estimate the year 2022 yielded a harvest of 2.75 million tons of hay across 1.14 million harvested acres.
That’s a lot of hay.
In Colorado’s south-central San Luis Valley, the most expansive alpine valley in the world, alfalfa for hay is the second largest crop behind potatoes. But due to the area’s low precipitation, which averages only 7 to 10 inches a year, irrigation systems are a necessity. Without them, the rolling hay fields situated between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Juan Mountains wouldn’t exist.
Hay farms in Colorado’s high country face a different challenge. In the high-elevation mountain basins of North Park, Middle Park, and South Park, naturally high precipitation shortens the haying season. In wet years, delays can extend into September. That doesn’t leave farmers and ranchers much time to process their crops before the snow flies.
In Colorado’s eastern plains region, the agricultural heartland of the state, the conditions for growing hay are favorable. Hot days combined with snow-melt irrigation, bolstered by irrigation systems, make for good harvests. But producers face unique challenges that vary from season to season. These range from drought, fires, and hail to tornadoes that can cripple irrigation systems in a matter of minutes.
When it comes to the land, some farmers own their acreage while others lease from the government. In Boulder County, multigenerational farms benefit from long term leases of open space agricultural land offered by Boulder County Parks & Open Space (BCPOS). Even homesteads dating back to the 1850s make use of these leases.
In true “Colorado proud” fashion, people across the state celebrate Colorado’s hay baling season at a variety of festivals and events.
On the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the town of Westcliffe puts on their annual High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival every July. Over the course of four days, bluegrass bands from across the country take the stage to perform for thousands of festival goers. A youth music group called High Mountain Hayseeds shares their best material with audiences as well.
At the Routt County Fair in the heart of the Yampa Valley, a baled hay contest focuses on the scientific aspects of growing hay. Farmers who enter the competition submit chemical analyses of their alfalfa and grass cuttings to be evaluated by seasoned judges. The winners in each category get to take home bragging rights.
Come fall, hayrides and straw-bale mazes are omnipresent at pumpkin patches across the state. At the annual Studt Farms Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze in Grand Junction, people of all ages are encouraged to climb up, then slide back down, an enormous mound of hay bales called Hay Mountain.