When rancher Karen Bueche had a truck load of hay delivered in late October, she had no idea what kind of headaches were unloaded on her property in Black Forest.
The truck from Mount Pleasant, Texas showed up four hours late.
“Since he had issues, all we did was back the truck into the property a little bit and push them off,” Bueche said of the 34, 5-foot round bales.
“When we were pushing off the last few, I got up on the deck of the trailer and suddenly I felt something biting my legs,” she said.
Bueche said she looked down and “the whole deck was swarming” with red fire ants.
The driver, who brought the load from the United States Department of Agriculture’s fire ant quarantine zone, which covers Texas and 12 other states along the Gulf Coast, immediately ran to this cab.
“I have a certificate,” he said, waving the document that indicated the load was fire ant free when it was loaded onto the truck in eastern Texas.
Bueche, who owns the 20-acre Double-K Ranch with about 40 head of cattle, said she reluctantly, but immediately, bought some Sevin dust in an effort to kill the ants. Then she emailed Texas farmer Dustin Hearron, who she said sold her the hay off craigslist.com. She told him that the feed was infested and he needed to, “Get the hay off my property now.”
The next step for Bueche was to contact agriculture officials. She did, calling the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the USDA. That’s when Bueche’s headaches really began.
“For me, I’m probably going to go under,” she said. “It’s become a nightmare, a total nightmare.”
Hay is a precious commodity this winter after a summer of drought led to short local supplies and skyrocketing prices.
Prices have jumped 30 percent in price from 2011 with local vendors now selling hay at $400 to $450 per ton.
The USDA first quarantined the bales that blocked the Bueche’s driveway.
Then, a USDA representative came to Black Forest, took two vials full of ants for analysis and spread some poison near the bales.
The rancher said the hay sat there full of ants for more than a week.
She called the USDA again and got mixed stories from Mike Winks, a USDA official in Denver.
According to Bueche, Winks first told her that she could return the hay to Texas and the seller would have to eat the cost. Bueche asked for that in writing. But Winks changed the story, explaining that since the hay had already been unloaded onto her property, the rancher was now responsible for the $4,000 truckload.
The official gave her one more option, however. He said to feed the hay to her cattle before the spring thaw and the ants would not survive in the Colorado climate.
“I said, ‘You’re trying to force me to feed this hay’,” said Bueche. “And he said, ‘It would be easier for us.’”
Larry Hawkins, a spokesman for the USDA, said that the feed option seems to be the most reasonable. He said the representative who inspected the hay told him that it did not look like every bail was infested.
“It doesn’t appear to be really high risk,” Hawkins said, indicating that there did not appear to be a queen ant in the load. “Based on what we saw, there is not a colony, just some worker ants.”
Hawkins referred to a map at usda.gov that shows the potential range expansion of invasive red fire ants. Colorado is not included in the area because of low temperatures and high altitude, Hawkins said.
Bueche is concerned anyway. The rancher wonders why the hay has been quarantined if there is little risk and Colorado is out of the zone where fire ants thrive.
Multiple articles, including a report by a University of Missouri agriculture extension office and an article at pbs.org entitled Animals Behaving Worse: In the Line of Fire say that red imported fire ants not only can cause harm to vegetation, but their venomous bites pose risks to people and livestock.
To Bueche the hay is now unfeedable. She raises her cattle “naturally” and doesn’t want to give them hay that has already been laced with pesticides.
Hearron insists that Bueche pay him and use the hay. Bueche said the Texas farmer doesn’t feel responsible since the truck was permitted certifying the load to be ant-free.
The Black Forest rancher doesn’t know exactly what to do now.
She knows she must follow USDA rules, which could mean property inspections from the agency for the next couple of years. She doesn’t have any untainted feed to keep her cattle nourished through the winter. She is scared of being out the $4,000 for the load. But more importantly, Bueche is worried about the possibility of being sued and legals costs that could pile up.
“The headache is one thing,” she said. “But the financial problem is going to be another.”