Drought impacts local cattle production


Families will likely see higher prices for fresh meat and produce as the drought continues to devastate farmers across the region.

The latest New Mexico State University Agricultural Statistics report was released last month and shows a decline in beef cattle production throughout the state. In fact, the number of beef cattle is at its lowest in state history, said Newt McCarty, extension agent at NMSU Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Tomé farmer Ricardo Sanchez is on his tractor plowing a field on N.M. 47. Valencia County received $83 million in agricultural revenues in 2012, $71.9 million in livestock, $9.3 million in crops, and $6.7 million from hay, according to a New Mexico State University report.

Hay prices skyrocketed in 2011 because without adequate rainfall, ranges dried up. Beef producers began streamlining their herds, McCarty said.

“Even after the drought, if the drought ever goes away, it’s still going to take awhile to rebuild that beef herd,” he said. “It’s a fairly prolonged situation because of the cost in rebuilding the herd.”

Valencia County farmers are bracing for another dry growing season, and some may wonder if the current drought conditions are the new norm.

“Maybe what we’re dealing with now is what we’re going to have to deal with for years,” said McCarty. “Maybe adjust practices and understand that five years of rain and 30 years of drought is the norm.

“I’m not a historian and I’m not a climatologist ― I’m just trying to figure this out along with everybody else,” he said. “What do we prepare for? Do we change our practices to meet what is currently happening, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“We are looking at what can we be doing with the resources we currently have,” McCarty said.

Universities are doing a lot of studies on alternative hays that are more drought tolerant, such as the forage alternative researched by NMSU called Teff grass, an annual, drought tolerant grass with origins in Ethiopia.

“The science center is going to continue to experiment with it this year,” McCarty said. “We’ve got some interest from some of the producers at the forage workshop that want additional information on it and are going to consider it.”

Drought can kill grass, but alfalfa can go into dormancy during severe drought and survive until it gets water. Grasses don’t have that ability. Alfalfa also has a much deeper root system than grass, and can reach down deeper for moisture, he said.

Some farmers look to NMSU extension agents for alternative crops.

“I think we’ve got a lot of producers who are progressive in looking into alternative and more efficient ways of watering, looking for species that are more drought tolerant, working toward ways of conserving water to extend their growing season and so forth,” McCarty said. “Cover-cropping is becoming more popular, drip irrigation systems are becoming more popular … farmers and ranchers are survivors.”

Regional farmers in the New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma area have maintained agriculture production through more than one drought period over the years, including during the Dust Bowl.

“This isn’t our first drought by any means,” McCarty said. “Farmers are very resilient and resourceful. They place a lot of weight on their shoulders ― they’re trying to help feed a nation and a world, and they are going to find the means to do so.”

Valencia County has more than 12,000 acres of planted alfalfa and is agriculturally diverse with farms raising cattle, dairy, sheep, hogs, horses, goats, chickens, emu, and crops including forages, chile, wheat, peanuts, corn silage, wine grapes, berries, apples, jujube fruit (Chinese date), honey as well as market and kitchen garden produce.

There are about 900 farms in the county and most of them are small, family farms.

The USDA defines a farm “as any place that produced and sold, or normally would have sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year,” and includes farms, ranches, nurseries and greenhouses.

Meat and dairy are New Mexico’s top agricultural revenue streams, bringing a little more than $3 billion annually. The total value of agriculture production is more than $4.2 billion.

Valencia County received $83 million in agricultural revenues in 2012, $71.9 million in livestock, $9.3 million in crops, and $6.7 million from hay, according to the NMSU report.

The number of farms and ranches in New Mexico has increased to 23,800, a continuing rise since 1985, when the state only had 14,000 farms. What is new is the number of minority and young farmers has grown since 2007.

The Central New Mexico LandLink program connects aspiring young farmers with retiring farmers and other farm land owners who would like their land to continue to be farmed. Its mission is to get the next generation of local farmers onto the land with the support they need to succeed. The LandLink website is localfoodnm@mrcog-nm.gov, and the office phone number is 724-3619.

As far as the water outlook, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is looking to borrow water and get some from the federal government. The city of Albuquerque offered to give the district water, which it can pay back in the future, said Tom Thorpe, MRGCD public information officer.

This month, the ditches will be flushed to get rid of as much weed seed as possible, and at the end of March or early April irrigation begins, Thorpe said.

Some farmers are looking for alternative crops to plant that are drought tolerant. For others, with a perennial crop in the ground, it might be better to stick with what they have growing, McCarty said.

“At least you’ve got something in the ground. What we don’t want is bare soil,” he said. “A lot of rotations are, they’ll plant something, they’ll harvest it, plant another one, harvest it and then go into their permanent crop.

“You don’t want to get in the middle of that and then have nothing planted in your soil and not have water. If you’ve got water you can still get something out of it, if you don’t, then at least you’ve got some sort of cover on your ground and you haven’t invested all that time and money in replanting something that you’re not going to get anything out of.”

There are a number of programs through the Farm Bill that assist producers with drought conditions, he said. There is a native grass program to assist producers with range management, and there are resource conservation grants to help small producers with fencing costs for rotational grazing or grant funding to help farmers install underground pipes or drip irrigation to conserve water.

Disaster programs and conservation grants are available from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA-Farm Service Agency. The Los Lunas USDA and NRCS can be reached at 865-4641.

The NMSU Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service offers assistance and educational programs to anyone in the county.

For information, visit the website at www.valenciaextension.nmsu.edu or call Newt McCarty at 565-3002.

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