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'Drought makes me a better manager.' Despite rains, New Mexico cattle ranching hit by dry spell


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DOÑA ANA COUNTY – On his cattle ranch 34 miles west of Las Cruces, Steve Wilmeth processed 52 new heifers on a recent morning. A crew of five helped herd the cows through a chute to be branded and given a quick inspection before they were released into an adjacent corral. 

"These are south Texas girls that are cross-bred, that are tough, tough as nails," Wilmeth said. "They've been in mesquite country. They've been with rattlesnakes. They can deal with drought."

New Mexico's cattle ranch industry is contending once again with long-term dry conditions.

Get to know the Butterfield Overland Trail, which cut through southwest New Mexico

According to a U.S. Drought Monitor map updated Thursday, most of the state is experiencing drought ranging from moderate to extreme, with some of the driest conditions in the state's northwestern and southwestern corners. 

Those conditions stand even after robust monsoon rains brought some relief as well as some dangerous flash floods around the state. 

Wilmeth said his selection of stock this year was a response to drought and subsequent reductions in pasture. 

"We didn't have grass at the end of 2020," he said. What was blooming a year ago, on the other hand, was broomweed, which is toxic for cattle. That hit his straight-bred Angus cows hard, he said, leading him this year to a choose a heartier crossbreed wiser to noxious growth. 

A tough year for cattle industry

Earlier this month, state lawmakers on the interim Water and Natural Resources Committee received a report from New Mexico State University's Animal and Range Sciences department depicting the effects of drought on animal health and pasture, reduced forage, the costs of adjusting to these conditions and the potential impacts on the industry as well as beef prices. 

Moreover, with drought covering most of the American west, supplies of hay to supplement dry pastures may be tighter, more expensive and have to be imported across greater distances.

Jay Lillywhite, a professor of agribusiness management and marketing at NMSU, said the current situation recalls the intense drought and heat waves of 2011. If ranchers sell off cattle in response, he said beef prices could fall in the short-term, but there could be greater expenses and smaller supply ahead. 

"Longer term, you have the problem that we have fewer cows and calves, and it's going to take time to build that herd back up," he said. He estimated the correction of the beef cycle could take up to 12 years. 

"You can never afford to buy the cow back that you sell today," NMSU animal science professor Eric Scholljegerdes remarked. 

Because of selective breeding suited for individual ranches, he said culling comes at a cost extremely difficult to recover when dry spells recede and pastures bloom again. 

"It's not like you just sell that cow and just replace her, because there have been years and years of selection pressure," he said. "I don't think people outside the beef industry fully appreciate how challenging it is to deal with drought, not only financially but emotionally. … When it's time to restock, everybody else is going to restock and prices go up."

Addressing the drought, Wilmeth spoke more about turf management than livestock. 

"Our task is to manage these God-given resources in a manner that they evolved in and bring some integrity back to these lands," he said. "That includes sustainability and sequestration of carbon." 

While dry years hurt forage, Wilmeth said they give way to a few years' worth of moisture and sweet grasses for his cows. 

'Drought makes me a better manager'

New Mexico farmers saw tight allotments of irrigation water from river flows this year, as a consequence of La Niña events that pushed storms northward. While cyclical patterns distribute dry and wet periods, climatic patterns are likely to increase in frequency, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, due to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. Their research can be accessed online at http://research.noaa.gov/.

Wilmeth took a longer view, speaking of drought as part of a natural cycle  — along with winds, fires, fallow periods and the movement of cattle itself — vital for managing vegetation and abating noxious growth.

"I think drought is the natural alternative to fumigation," he said while resting at the side of the cattle chute in the sunshine. "I think drought makes me a better manager." 

Scholljegerdes said there is a common sentiment in the state's industry that recurring drought "is what we endure as New Mexico cattle ranchers. You start to refine what you do and you find inefficiencies in your process. Obviously, the more cattle you have, the better off your financial position is … but then a drought hits and you realize, 'I was probably overstocked.' A conservative stocking rate is a really good plan." 

WIlmeth, a fifth-generation rancher in New Mexico, spoke in great detail about strategic choices he has made in breeding calves, working to reduce the amount of feed required to put weight on the animals, aiming to leave some feed behind as biomatter when he leaves a pasture fallow for, ideally, 14 months at a time. 

"Look at the rebound," he said, gesturing toward pastures to the south which showed rapid growth following recent monsoon rains in Doña Ana County. "Look at the explosion of grass when we get some moisture." 

"Drought is devastating," he said. "We don't like it, but we'll challenge it. We'll be OK." 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.