By Michael Cox

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has reintroduced his bipartisan Modernizing Agricultural Transportation Act. It won’t help the ag transportation mess that will ensue as the Little Blue Canyon project on U.S. 50 starts moving rock this week. The 19-hour-per-day highway closures begin next Monday, which is when the world’s biggest case of gridlock may well occur.

Bennet said his bill is aimed at “Providing farmers and ranchers a seat at the table will lead to more sensible rules around the transportation of agricultural goods,” and: “It is important that we maintain safe roads, while also recognizing the unique flexibility needed to move Colorado’s agricultural products to market.”

The point of the legislation is to reform the Hours of Service (HOS) and Electronic Logging Device (ELD) regulations at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The bill would delay enforcement of the ELD rule until the required reforms are formally proposed by the USDOT Secretary.

Under current regulation, livestock and produce haulers are summarily dumped into the general transportation mix without consideration of the urgency with which they must move. Drivers, including livestock haulers and produce carriers, are required to get off the road after 11 hours of service. They must not drive again for 10 consecutive hours. Alternately, the Department of Transportation regulations state: “A driver may not drive beyond the 14th consecutive hour after coming on duty, following 10 consecutive hours off duty. Off-duty time does not extend the 14-hour period.”

There is a section of the regs that allows a driver to extend the 11- and 14-hour restrictions, if they encounter adverse driving conditions. The adverse condition could well include massive delays due to road construction.

Bennet and his co-sponsor, John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) think that the rules do not take into consideration the need for more malleable rules for ag truckers.

“Livestock haulers need a permanent solution to the HOS and ELD rules that provides flexibility while also ensuring road safety and the humane transportation of animals,” Hoeven said. “We’ve worked hard to secure regulatory relief under these rules, including the 150 air-mile agriculture exemption and the flexibility the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) provided for all commercial drivers last fall. Our legislation builds on these past efforts, putting the ELD rule on hold and helping ensure that the USDOT advances reforms which will work in the real world.”

With the upcoming closure on one of the most vital ag-hauling routes in the country, U.S. 50, the HOS regs may collide with the roadbuilders’ need to control traffic and will lengthen the haul from Montrose eastward. Highway 50 will be the road of choice for almost all of the thousands of truckers over a critical time when stock and crops are being transported to market.

It is relatively easy to see a scenario where a hauler leaves the Western Slope with, say, a tandem rig full of steers. The expected delays could easily extend the HOS for a driver well beyond the limit, depending on how far he or she has to drive after making it through the blockade. Add that to the stress on the livestock and we have a potential disaster lurking.

Bennet’s bill, which he and Hoeven put forth last session and are now relaunching, would establish a working group at USDOT to identify obstacles to the safe, humane, and market-efficient transport of agricultural commodities, including livestock. Within one year of the group’s establishment, they must develop guidelines for regulatory or legislative action to improve the transportation of these commodities.

So, the legislation will be too late to help Western Slope haulers this time ‘round. But, it is a worthy effort and could help in the future. Meanwhile, the Little Blue Creek Canyon project is steaming ahead. After a plethora of meetings, it appears that the ag stakeholders have made their point. In the release from the Colorado Department of Transportation news blurb issued the day the project began, one of the points it made was that stock and produce are on their minds.

In the list of items that will guide the closure activity was this note: “A dedicated coordinator for trucks with livestock or other agricultural products will be available by phone and on the ground to help minimize delays.” The coordinator will be available by phone and on the ground to help minimize delays. The phone number is 970-340-4333.

While there are alternate routes, there is not much enthusiasm for them. Both the I-70 and SR- 92 are fraught with problems. Both would extend the driving time and force HOS rules to kick in. The 92 road is not really a hauling road. Half of it has a number of very tight turns as well as steep grades – not something anyone would enjoy while hauling a load of stock over it. CDOT is finishing up some minor changes in the 92 road to ease some of those issues.

The best that haulers can do at this point is to figure in the delays, begin hauls to take advantage of the openings, and coordinate with the CDOT personnel. The hotline phone number is 970-340-4333. A text message notifications system is available for this project. Register for alerts by texting us50 to 21000. Charges may apply.

Ag action underwayI checked in with Jerry Allen at NRCS recently to see what he was seeing in the fields, hereabouts. Allen puts a lot of miles and phone time in helping the growers in the valley.

“The word is that there will be a lot of corn this year because it doesn’t take as much water as hay, plus the price is up on corn a buck. Beans are also up a few dollars. Not seeing too much hay going in but that might change,” Allen says.

He observed that we had some decent soil moisture from the snow, especially in the Montrose area.

“Delta area guys had their ground ready for planting (except for land leveling and marking, which has to wait for the fertilizer and spray rigs). Olathe farmers are pretty close now, and some onions are going in right now,” Allen says.

As an irrigation specialist, Allen is concerned about water this year. “We will be down on water, so that impacts everything. The snowpack has rebounded above Taylor Lake to be in the 90% range, up from low 80s a month ago. But Blue Mesa is less than 50% full and we don’t have carryover water, so water conservation will be critical.”

Allen says that we might be one of those “Dr. Pepper” irrigation years. That happens when irrigators change water 6, 2 and 10 for 8-hour sets instead of 12-hour sets like normal. He thinks that pastures and marginal ground will be deficit irrigated or fallowed in some cases to make the rotation on sweet corn, onions, corn and beans. There is just a little green from winter wheat and triticale.

While a number of farmers had begun planting spelt over the past few years, there is no spelt this year. The COVID-19 pandemic reduced that market and the stored product ended up as a big carryover from last year.

Allen says, “That took out hundreds of acres of spelt that was a great market. The cost of fuel and fertilizer is up quite a bit, the smart (farmers) had prepaid for last fall.”

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