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New Mexico ranchers face historic drought

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Lewis Hisel’s Angus-mix cows graze on short dry grass on land in Guadalupe County in late October.

FORT SUMNER – When Charlie Overton’s grandfather first arrived in De Baca County in the 1920s, he marveled at the fertile, tall grasslands that extended for hundreds of miles in each direction. Almost immediately, he knew he wanted to establish his own ranch on the land.

“He wrote home his parents in Tennessee and said, ‘I found my promised land,'” Overton said.

Charlie Overton is a lifelong rancher in De Baca County.

Through the years, Overton’s grandfather, his father and eventually he would see the ranch through decades of cattle seasons.

And while the ranch’s success has gone through peaks and valleys at different times, Overton said this has been one of his toughest seasons yet – you can see it in the land itself.

Drought has decimated the tall grasslands that once blanketed the landscape, replacing them with weeds and other less edible plants.

On top of a hill overlooking his ranch, he held a picture of his land seven years ago when rainfall was steady, with golden grass flooding the landscape. These days it’s little more than dirt and patches of white grass.

“It’s a drought-resistant grass and the cows don’t hardly eat it,” Overton said. “But they do now.”

The rest of De Baca County, more than 2,000 square miles in New Mexico’s southeastern region, is also in some of its worst drought conditions in years. The area typically receives 12 inches of rain a year, but only has around 6 inches so far this year.

De Baca County rancher Charlie Overton holds a photo shot in this same location on his ranch seven years ago. The photo shows tall grass during a year with much more rain. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ranchers across New Mexico are selling off large portions of their cattle, in some cases more than half their herds, as drought has ravaged what little grassland remains.

And while ranchers sell cows every year, 2020 has seen many sell in larger quantities, especially breeding cows that produce the calves ranchers rely on.

It’s not an easy choice to make, even in the worst of times. Ranchers spend years developing breeding strategies and have to start from scratch once mother cows are sold for slaughter.

The drought has forced many ranchers to sell their animals because their land can’t sustain the cows through winter. Purchasing feed for the herd when there’s not enough grass is expensive.

Just east of Overton’s property, that heartbreaking decision was on full display.

Ted McCollum was in the process of selling off all 125 head of cattle on the allotment; many of his neighbors came by to help guide his herd into large semi-trucks, the air thick with dust.

McCollum said ranching is a long-term investment and that they can’t rely on steady rainfall next year to make up for this year’s losses.

Cowboys load Ted McCollum’s cows onto a truck at a ranch in De Baca County in late October. McCollum and other New Mexico ranchers sold more cows than normal this year because their dry land can’t feed the animals.  (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s probably going to take four or five years to get over some of the inertia,” he said.

It’s not just ranchers in De Baca County or even the southeast facing this predicament. The dramatic sell-off of cattle is occurring in nearly every part of the drought-stricken state.

Charlie Myers, co-owner of Cattlemens Livestock Auction in Belen, sells cattle for ranchers in every corner of New Mexico and said he’s seeing more cows sell for less money. They wouldn’t be able to survive on what little grass remains.

“The cattle are as cheap as I’ve seen them and I’ve been here 47 years,” Myers said.

Typically, a full-grown cow can sell for anywhere between $900 and $1,200. This year, some ranchers are reporting receiving as little as $400 for each cow.

Myers said ranchers would rather sell their stock now than risk letting them starve on little to no grass.

The reasons behind the price collapse are multi-faceted.

Lewis Hisel, who raises cattle in Guadalupe and De Baca counties, shows his records of rainfall for the past three years.

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed prices earlier this year when many of the nation’s packing plants endured large outbreaks and significantly reduced production. That saw fewer cattle being slaughtered and a backup at feeding lots around the country. The backup was made worse as restaurants closed or limited business operations, meaning the beef market was full of cows with nowhere to go.

Ranchers have sold larger quantities of their herds earlier in the year, exacerbating the already saturated market and driving prices down.

Many sold calves in July, predicting that grasslands couldn’t sustain them in the traditional selling time of October. In many cases, they were right. Randall Majors, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said calves were about 150 pounds lighter this year than normal, another deep economic blow.

One of Lewis Hisel’s Angus-mix cows grazes on what little grass remains on a pasture in Guadalupe County.

The land is taking its toll on cattle. Their teeth are ground down from chewing on rocks, they digest dangerous weeds that abort their calves and they have lost weight.

That double-whammy of a pandemic sets this drought apart from others.

Majors recalled a good year at his family’s ranch in 1987, when both the weather and market were favorable. His father offered some cautious advice:

“He said, ‘You better remember this, because it’s not too many times both of those are good at the same time.”

Statewide drought

Drought doesn’t bring immediate destruction.

There are no hurricane-force winds ripping buildings apart, no wildfires burning forests to a crisp. But ranchers feel the impacts all the same.

“It’s like being slowly strangled,” said Lewis Hisel, a De Baca County rancher.

Hisel weaned calves early this year. He has already moved cows to a pasture reserved for winter grazing, desperate for grass.

Ranchers are often regarded as optimistic, a necessity given the fickle market. However, this year has many thinking in more dramatic circumstances.

“If we don’t get some moisture next year, I’ll have to sell everything I’ve got,” Hisel said. “There’s just nothing out there for them to eat. And then you have to try to start over.”

USDA data shows that 76% of cattle and calves in New Mexico are receiving supplemental feed. In New Mexico, 43% of rangeland is in poor to very poor condition.

Charlie Overton walks around sacahuista grass on his ranch in De Baca County in late October. Extreme drought conditions have decimated the grass on his ranch that the cows normally graze on. Cows can eat sacahuista grass, but it can be toxic.

Extra feed means ranchers spend more money, while earning less on their cows.

The National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration release a New Mexico drought map each week.

The map has five categories, from abnormally dry to exceptional drought.

Low soil moisture and fire danger are signs of the least severe level of drought. Suffering livestock and dying plants are trademarks of the worst drought.

Pale yellow splotches of abnormally dry land crept onto the map of northern New Mexico this spring.

But as summer wore on, the map became a sea of red – extreme and exceptional drought.

Several summers of record heat and minimal rainfall have dried up pastures statewide.

“Usually you have more of what’s called a flash drought, where you may have something for a six-month period of time,” McCollum said. “This is two (drought) times, back-to-back.”

Many southeast New Mexico ranchers think their region should be in exceptional drought, instead of the lesser extreme drought category.

They send rain gauge data and photos to the National Weather Service, asking for a map that reflects what they see on the land.

Ranchers receive bigger payments from the federal Livestock Forage Program when their county is in exceptional drought.

“They say we’re in dire straits, but that map is not showing it,” Hisel said as he parked his truck on the De Baca-Chaves county line and pointed to dying grass on both sides. “The grass losses are not just from one person overgrazing. They’re from years and years of drought.”

One possible reason for the discrepancy between the map and on-the-ground rangeland conditions: limited data.

State Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, will propose a bill in the next legislative session that would fund more regional weather monitoring stations.

New Mexico Department of Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Jeff Witte said measuring every drop of rain is critical during a “pretty rough” drought.

“When you’re driving across our state, because of our wide open spaces, you can see where it rained and where it didn’t rain,” Witte said. “But the monitor won’t always pick that up.”

When grass withers away, ranchers may turn to government programs to make ends meet. This year, USDA drought disaster declarations have made producers in New Mexico eligible for Farm Service Agency emergency loans.

The Small Business Administration also has economic injury disaster loans available for small nonfarm businesses and small agricultural cooperatives that are dependent on farmers and ranchers who have suffered production losses because of the drought.

The money can pay for equipment, livestock and other drought-related losses.

Producers also qualify for an Internal Revenue Service extension that would allow them to delay paying capital gains taxes on livestock sold because of drought.

Economic impact

Agriculture is a $3.2 billion industry in New Mexico, according to the USDA.

Witte said rural counties like De Baca and Chaves rely on agriculture and producers for revenue and support of local businesses.

“Without agriculture there is no economy,” he said.

The industry produces jobs for ranch hands, schools, restaurants and feed stores, that only remain in business as long as the rancher does.

Rural communities fear what will happen if ranching families leave. De Baca has already seen its number of producers decline steadily, as corporations buy up land.

The drop in tax revenue cost the county its only hospital.

Jeff Bilberry, a Chaves County commissioner who also oversees ranches in five New Mexico counties, said the relief funds only go so far in a dry year.

“Cattle and agriculture are what pays the taxes in these rural counties,” Bilberry said. “Nobody will really know until spring what we’re up against. But we know that this is going to be detrimental to the tax base in these counties and to the families on these ranches.”

Conditions don’t improve across state lines. Donald Shawcroft, who ranches in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, said his herd has suffered from little spring moisture and a nonexistent monsoon season.

Cowboys load Ted McCollum’s cows onto a truck at a ranch in De Baca County in late October. The cows will be sold at a livestock auction.

“This year, the grass just ran out, because you didn’t have the production in the summertime,” Shawcroft said. “Less hay is available, and what hay is available is more expensive.”

During past droughts, Shawcroft has found other pastures for his cows, once shipping herds as far as Missouri.

“That pasture wasn’t exactly cheap,” he said. “If come March, there’s no snow in the mountains, then we’ve got to dig deeper to find another plan.”

New Mexico’s ranchers will adapt to the drought, Witte said, by acknowledging that water is scarce and adjusting their business.

“Our producers are innovative,” Witte said. “This isn’t their first rodeo. They’ve been through this before.”

But for many ranchers, selling half their herd was the adaptation. If it fails to snow and rain enough by next spring, there will be little left to survive on, Majors said.

“It’s gonna be a situation then where they’ll have to be looking for other income sources,” he said. “We’re just not going to be able to continue to run the numbers of cattle you need to and you’re not gonna get the weights off the cattle you need.”

Myers said it could take 20 years for ranchers to reach prosperous outputs again.

But for ranchers like Overton, whose family has tended the land for decades, selling doesn’t feel like a viable option, tempting as it may be.

He overlooked the property, dust blowing at his feet where grass used to be.

“There is not a better way of life and living,” he said, expressing optimism about next year.

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