Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch is a mixture of old and new traditions. The dude ranch, nestled by the Colorado River just below Parshall, Colorado, has placed itself on the map for not only providing memories for its guests, but for being among four dude ranches in the state of Colorado to feed their trail horses nutrient dense hydroponic hay.

The step into 21st century  hydroponic technology has created new benefits and advantages for the owners of Bar Lazy J, Cheri and Jerry Helmicki who have owned the ranch for the last twenty years.

Head Wrangler Lauren Cooper and Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch owner, Cheri Helmicki stand outside of the open doors of the fodder unit that is 20 feet long by 10 feet wide.

After researching the hydroponic hay system developed in Australia to combat the effects of severe drought, the Helmickis believed it made economic sense to incorporate the system into their dude ranch.

“We can now feed nutrient dense feed for $70 to $80 a ton,” said Cheri. She added that even though the horses still require some hay for roughage, Bar Lazy J is not as dependent on the variable hay market where prices fluctuate with supply and demand. “In a drought year, we can pay up to $350.00 a ton.”

The Fodder Solutions system installed by Bar Lazy J is a self-contained hydroponic unit that can produce 1300 pounds daily. The feed is planted as seeds in trays and is harvested as a biscuit that is fed directly to the horses.  The hydroponic unit is internally controlled for a 70 degree air temperature, 60 degree water temperature, and humidity between 60-70 percent.  These optimal growing conditions will produce 63 biscuits in six days and feed the ranches 75-80 horses for the day. The biscuit is approximately 20 pounds.

“We are seeing a big change in the health of our horses since beginning this program in December,” said head wrangler Lauren Cooper, “the feed has twice amount of protein as regular feed and is full of moisture.  The horses hooves are in better shape than ever before. Their coats are in good shape, and because the feed is full of water, it is harder for horses to colic.” 

Colic refers to a common digestive ailment in horses that causes abdominal pain and can cause a horse to “twist its gut” as it rolls on its back to seek comfort. This can result in death.

Lauren Cooper shows the 20 pound biscuit that is fed to each horse daily. *pictures by Kim Cameron

The portion controlled 20 pound biscuit is eaten by the horses roots and all. “It is all organic and excellent for them,” said Cheri. “It is a stabilizer for them. We 100 percent do not regret the investment.”

The start-up cost for the Fodder Solution system was $48,000, and the Helmickis also chose to house it in another shed to protect the system and to provide a warm working environment for the employees during the winter months.  The entire time spent for one employee to clean the trays with detergent, plant the seeds, and monitor the growth takes just an hour and a half.  Two employees can do the job in approximately 45 minutes. 

“It is not labor intensive,” Cheri noted.  “With the extra building, labor, electricity, everything, we expect this new system to pay for itself in just two years.”

The system also provides another benefit to Bar Lazy J who is essentially landlocked. “We sit on 80 acres and are surrounded by BLM and Forest Service for riding, but we do not have pasture,” explained Cooper.  “Our horses are turned out on pasture for two months a year in the fall, but we feed the other 10 months of the year.”

During the winter months the biscuits are fed out of the back of the truck onto the ground just like a normal hay operation might, and while the horses are being used in the summer months, the horses are fed individually and given a little bit of grain.

“This has been the biggest change.  We used to allow the horses free choice,” said Cooper, “but the individual portions have created a better schedule and routine for us.”

Guests to the ranch also enjoy seeing how the horses’ feed is grown and tours of the hydroponic station are often given in the afternoons.

“It has been a big science project,” said Cheri. “We are really proud of it.  It has been awesome.”

To schedule a visit to see the Fodder Solutions system, call the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch at 970-725-3437 or e-mail [email protected]

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