GRADY — This is wheat and cattle country, where 18 inches of rain a year makes the prairie bloom. Even the roads here bow in respect to agriculture: Instead of running straight, they turn at right angles to make way for a patchwork of wheat fields and cattle pasture.
Lane Grau drove me down one of those roads and then bounced us out into one of his pastures, where blue grama grass should be green and a few inches high in June.
“I’m 51 years old. I was born here, and I’ve never lived anywhere else,” he told me. “And this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. It’s crazy dry.”
He grows a few hundred acres of organic wheat, but makes most of his payday from selling breeding stock of creamy white Charolais cattle.
“That was my wheat crop,” Grau said as we passed a field of sparse stalks a few inches high.
We were a little more than a dozen miles from the Texas Panhandle, where Curry and Quay counties meet, on the high eastern plains.
When we got to the grazing pastures, Grau didn’t bother to close the gate behind us, because he no longer keeps any cows here. When he stopped the truck, got out and kneeled down on dirt, I could see why. The ground was pocked with short brown tufts of dry grass and patches of dark gray grass that flaked off under the kick of a boot toe.
Staring in 2011, he said, his land has gotten about 5½ inches of moisture on average.
Grau, who told me he doesn’t believe in man-made climate change, told me 2011 was a year of extremes like he’s never seen on his land. “We had the coldest ever — it got down to negative 18. We had the driest ever — I had less than 3½ inches. And we has the hottest ever — we were 57 days of over 100 degree temperature.”
What Grau thought was the worst is now looking like it could be repeated. We stood under a bright blue sky around lunchtime, and the thermometer registered 95 degrees. He’s had less than an inch of rain in 2013.
Grau’s pasture is mostly native blue grama grass, a hardy plant that covers much of New Mexico range land and has adapted to precipitation feasts and famines.
Seeing mile after mile of graying pastures where even grama grass is suffering mightily is cause for worry.
“There’s no green or new grass growing,” New Mexico State University range expert Nick Ashcroft told me when I called him to talk about the state of our blue grama.
The brown turf out there in the country is merely dormant. “It’s old grass that’s not doing anything, and it’s not going to until it rains,” Ashcroft said.
Flat gray turf, like the patches that cover 30 percent or more of Grau’s pastures, may be dormant or may be dead — a result of year after year of root attrition.
Grama uses water when it’s available and goes dormant during drier times. It has a root system that is shallow but thick. Over the winter, Ashcroft said, the plant tends to lose 30 percent of its root mass and then regenerate when rains come.
Grama can fail to regenerate in years of drought, but Ashcroft said that’s not a reason to panic about permanently losing pasture, because it tends to reseed around dead patches.
In a study in Texas, which had the worst drought in the country last year, half the grama grass died in the drought, and it didn’t matter whether it had been grazed or lain fallow.
In New Mexico, Ashcroft said, “We won’t know the mortality until it rains.”
If there’s a theme right now in New Mexico, Ashcroft might have put his finger on it: Until it rains.
New Mexico has now eclipsed Texas as the state with the worst drought conditions.
The map that the optimistically named National Drought Mitigation Center compiles and distributes once a week shows “extreme” drought conditions in red and the more serious “exceptional” drought conditions appropriately in brown. Week after depressing week this spring, the brown splotch has grown longer and wider. It now takes up well over half of the state.
All of Bernalillo County is in the brown. For city folks, that means a choice between using more water to keep things in the yard looking good — or at least alive — or sacrificing some plants or trees to these new conditions.
Out in the country, where grass is money, extreme and exceptional drought is a different and more serious matter.
Grau has reduced his herd of Charolais breeding stock by about 30 percent and told me conditions would indicate he should cut again. He’s reluctant, though, because showers have hit within a few miles of his place in recent weeks, and he knows all it would take is a couple good rains to turn things around.
“It surely can’t stay this way forever,” he said. “We have to believe it’s coming.”
Grau has some reason to be hopeful, because grama grass is resilient and because droughts have always drawn to an end.
Prior to record-setting 2011, the driest year in Grady was 1940, when precipitation was measured at 5 inches. The next year, 45 inches of rain fell. Grau’s grandfather said the grass was as high as a horse’s belly.
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