Rancher watches grass fry, soil blow

May need to reduce herd | Snowpack won’t fill rivers needed to irrigate 1,000 acres of land

DENVER, Colo. — Randy Davis doesn’t need the experts to tell him about drought. He has been living with it at his New Mexico ranch for 10 years.


Grass is sparse, the soil is blowing away and Davis’s family has downsized their cow herd from 1,500 to 600 Hereford and Angus females.


“As a rancher, you are in the grazing business. You have to have grass to have cattle,” said Davis, whose story is similar to what other ranchers across Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and California are living through. 


“The tough part is seeing your lifestyle slowly getting eroded. It is tougher and tougher to do what you have done all your life,” he said.


“We have been there for a long time and we will adapt, but it is hard to do something else with your life.… I am 56 years old and I do not want to start over.” 


Rain fell last July and August on his ranch in northeastern New Mexico., and the native grasses quickly regrew. However, this winter is dry again with limited snowfall to keep the soil from blowing away. 


Five family members and employees work the operation, which started in 1873 and covers 130,000 acres of privately owned plains, foothills and mountain country. 


It relies mostly on native grass and also has 1,000 acres of irrigated land. However, water allocation rights are moot if the rivers are running dry. 


The elevation is 6,000 feet, and in good years the ranch receives sufficient snow pack in the mountains to fill the rivers and keep the water cycle moving. 


The area has received 17 to 20 centimetres of snow this year.


“The mountains should be covered in snow by now and they are not,” he said.


The family has other investments and a profitable hunting and guiding business, which is booked solid every year with about 100 hunters looking for elk, deer and antelope.


“Economically, 600 to 700 head of cows does not support your employees and five family members.”


Davis has watched cow numbers drop across the southwest because there is no grass and not much water. For many who are past middle age and facing record high cattle prices, the choice may be to leave the business rather than restock. 


“For ranchers to restock, prices are way up there so you are in a tough situation. You are waiting on Mother Nature,” he said. 


The family has a drought plan, which includes selling off more cows in June and perhaps again in July if the summer is dry and there is no early spring moisture.


“It is a tough time right now and 
it has tested everybody’s inner strength,” Davis said.


The U.S. drought monitor places his region in the severe to extreme drought category with below normal precipitation in the southern Rockies. 


Colorado meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, who has been tracking this current weather pattern, advises producers to develop a drought plan and stick with it. 


“This drought has been cumulative,” he said.


“It has not just been one dry year.”


Snowfall on the Plains and in the Rocky Mountains has been below normal throughout the southwestern third of the United States. Summer rain came like monsoons: too fast and too late in the season. 


Davis is already speculating that the winter wheat may be plowed under in March because it is too dry. 


Soil is blowing like the dust bowl days of the 1930s, and the continued dryness means the ground is losing its ability to hold water. Few snowfalls occurred that were enough to cover the ground and keep it from blowing. 


This is the worst time of their lives for many young farmers and ranchers. 


“A lot of these young farmers are trying to get started. Those young guys have not seen dryness like this before,” Bledsoe said. “You should have had a drought plan yesterday.”


The 21st century introduced a new weather cycle with extremes of too much moisture or severe drought. 


“You are probably going to see dryness over the (next) 20 to 25 years,” he said.


Cattle herds are shrinking, and he sees changes in rural economies as small towns dry up as well.


“You drive through some of those small towns and they are a shell of what they used to be.”


The situation appears to be caused by a cold Pacific Ocean and a warm Atlantic. It is also repeating a weather pattern last seen in the 1950s, when droughts were common. Bledsoe’s research shows droughts have been an historical fact of life for the southwest region, sometimes lasting decades. 


“It has happened before and it will happen again,” he said.


There is some cautious optimism that moisture could arrive in April if a weak El Nino brings rain to the region. Bledsoe expected California to continue suffering from dryness. 


“Farmers and ranchers will have to be more adept at dealing with dryness than they were before,” he said.

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