Farmers certainly won’t remember 2013 as a great year for crops, but as the summer winds down, well, things are better off than we had feared.
The year began with some dire snowpack reports and extremely low soil-moisture levels. Combined with limited water available from the Colorado-Big Thompson project — due to both low storage levels and Fort Collins and Greeley seeking to offset supplies of Poudre River water heavy in sediment and ash from the High Park Fire — there seemed to be only trouble in the forecast and many farmers decided to let typically irrigated land go fallow.
But the winter wheat crop in northeast Colorado got a bump from some timely spring storms, and while the corn harvest is still largely up in the air, it was a pretty good summer for water, said Troy Bauder, the extension water quality specialist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University.
“I certainly think it was better than people thought it was going to be,” Bauder said. “But as you look at the corn crop, you can clearly see the difference in areas where they got maybe 2 to 3 inches of rain and it’s looking pretty good, to areas just 4 or 5 miles down the road where they did not.”
Hail storms in August did strike some Weld County vegetable producers fairly hard, but much of the corn crop was already past the pollination stage and less susceptible to hail damage. Still, the corn crop has yet to come in, though some cooler weather late in August certainly helped in terms of water available to the crops.
“We still have a couple of high E-T (evapo-transpiration) weeks left so the jury’s not in yet,” Bauder said.
The winter wheat harvest in northeastern Colorado was fairly close to average — not a banner year, but certainly much better than in the southeastern part of the state. Overall, the state’s 2013 wheat production was projected by the USDA to be 49.5 million bushels, down 33 percent from last year, and down 31 percent from the 10-year average.
However, some locations in southeastern Colorado reported production at 25 percent of average, so farmers here were actually picking up some of the statistical slack. Sally Sauer, a research associate in crops testing at CSU, said some of the school’s trials showed close to average production in northeastern Colorado (about 33 bushels per acre), but production averaged only 30.1 bushels per acre for the seven trial areas.
CSU’s Agricultural Experimentation Station is looking at new strains of wheat that may do well in varied conditions, but the technical report from this year did shed a good deal of light on overall conditions.
“By early spring, dryland trials and the crop in many areas of northeastern Colorado looked extremely good with high yield potentials,” the report states. “Subsoil moisture was not plentiful, yet expectations for above-average wheat yields were high. Unfortunately, the crop in many areas, including the trials at five of the seven remaining dryland locations in northeastern Colorado (Akron, Julesburg, Orchard, Roggen, and Yuma), received inadequate precipitation to meet these expectations.
“While each of these five trial locations were successfully harvested, average trial yields were at least 50 percent less than visual estimates made during site visits in late April and early May.”
Almost all of Colorado winter wheat is dryland farmed, but most of the dryland corn lies in the very eastern section of the state, which annually gets a couple more inches of water than, for instance, Larimer County. Bauder said that dryland corn out near Julesburg was doing fairly well.
In terms of water availability for next year, things are looking a lot better than last year. Northern Water’s Front Range reservoirs are running at about 60 percent of capacity, which is about normal. On the Western Slope, Lake Granby was at 67 percent of capacity and Grand Lake was at 81 percent, strong numbers for this late in the irrigation season.
“We have been amazed at how little water has been coming out of the reservoirs,” Northern spokesman Brian Werner said. “And all of this is because of the good precipitation we got in July and August.”
Fort Collins water production manager Lisa Voytko said the city was able to use a great deal more Poudre water this year than had been anticipated, in part because of a new sedimentation basin. Even during the recent debris flows and mudslides, she said, the city was able to quickly switch between Poudre River water and the cleaner supplies coming out of Horsetooth Reservoir, which stores water from the C-BT project, and then back again.
“It is amazing how quickly the river recovers (after a storm event),” she said. And, “we’re actually not having much trouble with the sediment — we have more trouble with the ash,” which remains suspended in the water for far longer.
With the irrigation and urban watering seasons starting to wind down, Voytko said the city may actually approach the historical average for Poudre water consumption, which means a great deal of the stored C-BT supply will remain in Horsetooth.
But while things are better off than we had feared, northeastern Colorado could still use some heavy rains (hopefully not during harvest) to ease the persistent drought conditions.
Bauder said that a normal soil profile here can hold as much as 12 inches of water, but farmers have been working on much thinner margin for the last two years. That means disruption in the availability of water can have a much more profound impact.
“It’s like some farmer told me a long time back, ‘Mother Nature always bats last,’” Bauder said.