One of the amazing benefits of living in a major river basin of Colorado is the abundant water that flows through the Elk River Valley. Charlie manages our irrigation system and hopes for consistent rainfall to help keep the pastures lush and green. With proper pasture management on the roughly 350 irrigated acres we use for horse pasture, we can maintain the herd of ~100 horses, keeping them fat and happy all summer long without supplemental feed The acres per animal ratio runs higher with horses than cattle or sheep, as horses are pickier about what they eat given their more fragile digestive systems.
As the summer ends, and the grass dries out and is eventually covered in snow, we switch over to feeding hay daily to our herd. Lucky for us, we can provide top quality hay that comes from several local ranchers in our area. We enjoy working with like-minded ranchers who have a similar philosophy about preserving the western heritage of the valley. In fact some even have conservation easements like the one established back in the 1990’s for Vista Verde.
Each summer Charlie works his napkin math to figure out how much hay we will need to support our herd through the upcoming winter season. Depending on conditions, he calculates when we will start needing to feed and takes into consideration how many horses we anticipate having in our herd for the winter to figure how much of each kind of hay to purchase. He typically purchases large alfalfa bales from the Jost family ranch in Hayden. The mix of big round and small square timothy hay bales come from the Dygert and Anderson family ranches. We have been purchasing hay from Gilbert Anderson for over 20 years!
Why Different Kinds of Hay?
When feeding a horse through our extreme winters, we must provide them with high impact feed, but they also need slow burning feed to carry them through the cold nights. Alfalfa hay packs protein and nutrients, which equals heat for a horse, in a powerful punch. But, to eat only alfalfa is like eating only meat and eggs. So, we mix grass hay into their diets to add fiber and give them something to chew on for hours on end, which is incredibly important for the digestive tract of a horse. In fact, the timothy grass hay produced in our area is coveted among horse owners around the county, as it isn’t as watery, so the protein and minerals are more concentrated. This means it packs more heat for the equivalent value. The mixture of alfalfa and grass hay keeps our horses fit and healthy, but also keeps them from getting what is referred to as a “hay belly,” which happens when all they eat is less densely nutritious grass hay.
Small Squares, Large Squares, and Rounds?
One can roughly calculate that each horse eats approximately 3 tons of hay over the course of the late fall, through the winter, and into the spring. Of the 350 tons of hay Charlie purchased this year, about ½ of the hay is round bales. The other ½ is a mix of large squares and small squares. Why the variety? The round bales allow us to feed the herd with the tractor during the off-season when we do not have enough snow on the ground to utilize the feed sleigh. The small squares are used when we feed with the sleigh as our wranglers can sit back and direct the guests to load the bales one at a time. Or something like that…..
So, next time you hear someone touting their farm-to-table dining, you can have a little chuckle and give a nod to Charlie for managing our farm-to-feed sleigh program at Vista Verde!