Little water, big worries

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The peaceful quiet at mid-afternoon on a Valencia County dairy farm belies the turmoil farmers are facing.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Los Lunas dairy farmer Janet Jarratt fears an uncertain future for the family farm as water resources dwindle. She looks over the family’s 320 Ayrshire dairy cows on the farm her father founded in 1959.

The dry weather of the past several years has made it a huge challenge to provide water for cows and irrigation for hay fields, and this year water shortages are expected even earlier than last year.

“When I checked El Vado (reservoir) this time last year, it had around 86,000 acre-feet in it,” said Los Lunas dairy farmer Janet Jarratt. “This year it’s got something like 17,000 acre-feet in it.”

El Vado Reservoir holds irrigation water for the Middle Rio Grande Valley, but low winter snow pack and meager summer monsoons have diminished reserves to extreme levels.

The De Smet dairy in Bosque Farms hasn’t had cows since Huck De Smet retired in 1998, but his son, Mike, has managed to keep the family farm by selling hay to other dairies. Now, water shortages threaten his hay production.

Usually, De Smet “double crops,” growing summer crops and winter crops in the same year on the same 125 acres, but last year he couldn’t plant a winter crop, because the district ran out of water.

“And then our costs as a farmer are going up,” De Smet said. “Our corn seed has almost doubled, tripled in the last five years. Fertilizer went from about $325 a ton up to about $900 a ton. Right now, it’s about $650, but as soon as the corn belt starts using all that urea (nitrogen fertilizer), prices just shoot up.”

The use of ethanol in gasoline has also been increasing, raising the price of corn, forcing farmers, in turn, to raise prices on what they produce.

“Five years ago, I was selling corn silage for $38 a ton,” De Smet said. “My contracted price last year was $72 a ton.”

Yields are also down, which he attributes to hot weather, water shortages and skewed irrigation rotations.

“Normally, people water every 14 days, but that’s been bumped up to every 17 days,” he said.

Both the Jarratt and De Smet dairy farms were started in the 1950s.

“When I was growing up, there were 32 dairy farms in Valencia County,” Jarratt said. “Valencia County was the dairy capital of the state.”

There are only five dairies remaining, and all the dairies in Bosque Farms are gone due to urbanization, she said.

“It’s something that makes the current Right to Farm Act they’re trying to do in the Legislature really critical,” she said. “Because people move in around an existing farm and then complain. They forced them all out.”

The Jarratt cow corrals are centered in the middle of the farm’s 120-acres. The prison farm is to the west, and the river to the east insulating them from neighbors and urban sprawl.

The last really good years for dairies was in the ’80s, she said, and in 2007, the family was hopeful.

The price of milk was good, and they were planning some repairs and improvements on the farm, but then things started to fall apart in 2008.

“And it just got worse and worse,” Jarratt said. “It’s been really tough.”

But dairies were having big trouble before the recession. One reason is the North American Free Trade Agreement hasn’t been working out for American family farms.

“Canada ships wheat in and put a lot of Montana wheat farmers out of business,” Jarratt said. “Mexico is shipping an amazing amount of stuff up here that we can’t compete with because they don’t pay their labor like we pay our labor.”

Then there is the Federal Milk Market Administrator setting the price of milk.

“Every month, the regional milk market administrator tells dairy farmers what they will get for their milk,” she said. “There are no considerations of the cost of inputs.”

Her father, Raymond Jarratt, 92, still works on the farm. He started with 100 Ayrshire cows in 1959, and worked as a soil surveyor for the Soil Conservation Service, milking his cows in the morning before going to work, and milking again when he got home in the evening.

As soon as Janet was big enough to reach the tractor clutch, she began to help feed the cows, she said.

“The farm is pretty run down in a lot of respects, but there is no debt,” she said. “We are a debt-averse family. I don’t think my parents ever owed on a car. They saved their money till they could buy it.”

The Jarratt farm has 320 dairy cows and employs four hired hands besides Janet and her sister, Karen.

“Now, you’ve got the same amount of land trying to feed six families instead of one,” she said. “That’s a global problem, and so the drought really exacerbates the ability to do that.

“You can take weather if you get it good and bad, but what we’re having … the failure of water is just one more thing in a long string of really hard times.”

Growing their own hay to feed the cows is a major advantage, but those who don’t grow their own are really in trouble.

Two years ago, a ton of alfalfa was $150. Last year it went as high as $300 a ton, she said.

The lower yields of De Smet’s hay and corn harvests reverberate to other farmers dependent on it.

One local farmer who has been contracting De Smet’s corn is drilling wells as fast as he can to meet the needs of his large dairy, De Smet said.

Another big farmer in Socorro County is leasing water rights in Bosque Farms, so he can get drill wells.

“It’s getting bad,” De Smet said. “You’ve got to have water to make money.”

This year, De Smet is experimenting with different production techniques to mitigate the dry conditions.

He’s growing water conserving cover crops and short duration corn.

“We’re planting some white clover into our corn fields,” he said. “We’re hoping that’s going to give us a shadow crop and be able to retain moisture so we can get our corn out to a longer duration without water.”

The clover is also a natural fertilizer because of an organism that lives on its roots and supplies nitrogen to the plant.

He chose Ladino white clover because it’s good for grazing as well, and he has added humus to the soils on the farm that are high in clay.

Other acreage where cows were congregated in the past are high in salt, and nothing would grow, he said.

“We dumped a bunch of humus and a bunch of mycorrhizae on it,” De Smet said. “Mycorrhizae is a fungus that grows on their roots and actually can provide nutrients to the plant. It can actually get nutrients out of the soil that plant roots normally couldn’t. We’ve been buying all this through Soil Secrets up here on (N.M.) 47 in Los Lunas.”

The farm hasn’t had any cows for the past decade, but De Smet is preparing to start a small dairy operation to produce organic raw milk for a niche market. He has 35 acres in organic production.

Another innovation De Smet started is growing kochia for forage to feed his cows. Kochia has been considered a weed, but he says it’s called the alfalfa of the desert.

“It’s just as palatable as alfalfa,” De Smet said. “You can hay it as long as you don’t let it overgrow.”

It has a similar protein content as alfalfa. Cows eat the leaves, but not the stems. He co-cropped it with a grass variety called Nuhi. Both need only three inches of water annually.

“We’re going to give it a shot to see what it’ll do, and how the cows like it,” he said. “Our goal here is to use less and less water. These are the things I’m doing to combat the drought conditions.”


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.