The view of eastern New Mexico from the air this year is a vast, brown expanse from horizon to horizon that looks a bit like a moonscape.
Green grass needed to feed cattle is virtually absent throughout much of New Mexico, forcing ranchers to drastically cut the size of their herds, officials and ranchers say.
“I don’t think there’s any green, other than lawns, in that whole eastern New Mexico area,” said Jerry Wertheim, whose family has ranched in the Fort Sumner area since the 1930s.
“At this point, it looks like it’s going to rival the very dry 50s,” said Wertheim, who graduated from Fort Sumner High School in 1956.
“I know ranchers that are getting rid of all of their cattle where they never did before,” Wertheim said. “It’s a difficult decision for a rancher.”
The drought has also contributed to a crisis at the 180,000-acre Double V Ranch near Fort Sumner, where New Mexico Livestock Board officials have found an estimated 1,000 head of starving cattle and at least 25 dead animals. The ranch’s owner, Richard Evans, was charged Thursday with 25 counts of animal cruelty.
A Tucumcari judge on Friday signed a seizure warrant that authorizes the Livestock Board to enter the Double V Ranch to provide food, water and care for the cattle. It also authorizes the state agency to seize and impound the cattle pending a hearing scheduled for June 13.
Tim Rose, 10th Judicial District Attorney, said Livestock Board officials planned to enter the ranch over the weekend to provide care for the animals.
“The poor condition of the cattle and the size of the ranch would make it unlikely or impossible to gather and transport the cattle within a short time frame without causing the death of many of the animals,” Rose told the judge in his application for the seizure warrant.
Livestock Board officials delivered two trailer loads of hay to the ranch on Saturday, said Ray Baca, interim director of the state Livestock Board.
“Wherever we find cattle, we’re dropping hay,” Baca said on Saturday.
One load of hay was distributed in the morning and another drop was planned for the afternoon.
“The cattle are in really bad shape,” Baca said. “There’s just no grass at all.”
Livestock board officials turned down a Journal request to accompany them, because they were entering private property.
The Journal’s efforts to reach Evans or his attorney this week were not successful. Phone messages left with his attorney in Roswell were not returned.
‘Going to get ugly’
Some officials say they fear that worsening drought conditions may require them to take action to protect animals at other ranches.
“It’s going to get ugly,” said state veterinarian Dr. David Fly. “It’s going from serious to impending disaster.” The statewide drought has resulted in a near absence of grass for fodder.
“People have hung on and kept minimal herds,” he said. “Those ranchers that could, have sold their cattle.”
Fly said he doesn’t know if the state faces more large herd seizures, but the possibility exists if drought conditions persist.
“We have ranchers scattered around the state that have weak cattle,” he said. “They don’t have the money to buy hay, and they are kind of in a trap.”
One emergency measure under discussion is the purchase of a large feed lot that would allow ranchers to sustain breeding animals until grass recovers on the state’s ranches.
The situation at Double V Ranch is “an anomaly,” said New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell, whose office leases some 9 million acres of grazing land to about 3,600 ranchers.
“This isn’t symptomatic of anything we’re learning about the 3,600 lessees across the state,” Powell said of the situation at the Double V Ranch. “The vast majority of folks have reduced the size of their herds because of the lack of grass and the huge price of supplemental feed.”
Powell agrees “it’s a desperate time” for ranchers. “In many cases, they have no livestock on that land at all” or a small number required to rebuild herds once rains return, he said.
The number of cattle in New Mexico has declined by more than half in recent years to an estimated 500,000 head, down from about 1.2 million in 2008, Fry said.
Wertheim said his family has about 650 calves and yearlings this year, or about half the number they usually run on their approximately 60,000 acres in De Baca County.
The same is true with other ranchers in the county.
“A number of ranchers have sold off a fraction or all of their herd because of drought conditions, because they have no forage, no grass,” he said.
The shortage of grass has also required the Wertheims to rely more on supplemental feed this year.
Some dry range grass remains from previous years that provides some roughage for cattle but lacks the nutritional value of hay, he said.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said the Double V Ranch marks the first time the Livestock Board has faced the likelihood of seizing hundreds of cattle.
But drought and rising hay prices are putting enormous pressure on ranchers trying to maintain breeding stock, she said.
“If we have one place like (Double V Ranch), it’s very concerning that there may be more,” Cowan said. “I’m fearful that there will be others simply because people keep praying and thinking that the rain is going to come.”
New Mexico ranchers buy out-of-state hay in large quantities, but the price has nearly doubled in the last three years to as high as $18 a bale, up from less than $10 a bale in the pre-drought era, she said.
The idea of buying or leasing a large feed lot that would offer ranchers a way to keep some portion of their herds alive until the drought ends is still in the early stages of discussion, Cowan said.
Fly said ranchers in northern Mexico took a similar step earlier this year, buying a large feed lot south of Chihuahua City to provide emergency sustenance for cattle.
New Mexico may need to consider such as measure to protect one of the state’s largest industries, he said.
“My feeling is that we’re a lot worse off than we’re willing to admit,” Fly said. “It’s hard to admit that you are at the end of your rope.”