Drought forces painful choices for New Mexico ranchers
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some stretches of New Mexico have gone months without meaningful moisture, leaving farmers and ranchers to make difficult decisions as long-term forecasts call for drought to intensify across the already arid state.
Experts with the National Weather Service talked of pitiful snowpack levels in the mountain ranges that feed the state's rivers ahead of the release Thursday of the latest drought map.
Despite the snow that fell overnight and early Thursday in some parts, the map shows all but a small sliver of southern New Mexico is grappling with some level of dryness, with extreme drought increasing in the northwest corner of the state.
The absence of moisture elsewhere in the West also has become more common since the start of the year. Every square mile of neighboring Arizona along with Utah and Nevada are mired in drought. Significant portions of Texas and Colorado have also fallen behind in snow and rainfall.
Royce Fontenot, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said it would take more than the recent moisture to recover from the long-term effects of drought.
"Drought is like malnutrition. One meal is not going to catch you up," he said.
The lack of moisture is beginning to be felt by the agricultural communities that make up New Mexico.
Officials with the federal Farm Service Agency say many ranchers are scrambling to buy up as much alfalfa as they can to supplement feed supplies while others from the small communities of Cuba to Carrizozo are cutting herd sizes.
On the high desert plains west of Cuba, fifth generation rancher Casey Spradley and her husband have been ranching on their own for about 20 years. They are the caretakers of the land first homesteaded by Spradley's great-grandparents nearly a century ago.
The Spradleys have a contingency plan for drought. Just a trace of rain fell last summer, forcing them to sell their calves early along with heifers that would have been ready to have calves this year.
Now with the dry winter and unfavorable forecast, they made the decision — a tough one that Spradley said came with two and a half weeks of tears — to sell more.
It will take years to rebuild the herd.
"I've looked for other pastures and there's just not any out there right now because I think everybody is a little bit worried that we are going to have a dry summer," she said. "People are trying to hold on to what little grass they have for this coming year."
Nancy Coonridge, who runs the Coonridge Goat Cheese Dairy near Pie Town, New Mexico, said her animals depend on organic hay in the winter when they can't eat wild forage. But she also has noticed the drought's effect on the open range.
Coonridge has reduced her herd by half.
"Goats are drought-hardy but we're going to have to be growing plants that are more hardy, forages that do better in these conditions," she explained during a phone interview as she held a bleating baby goat on her lap.
In the Mesilla Valley, farmer Jay Hill quickly sold his 2017 alfalfa reserves and his phone has not stopped ringing with livestock owners looking for more.
Most alfalfa grown in New Mexico is used by the dairy industry, and Hill said it will be a balancing act for farmers and dairies to find middle ground on pricing for the coveted feed. There also will be pressure on farmers as irrigation sources are expected to be limited later this year because of the drought.
"We're not even in hay season yet and we've already got one strike against us because we're having to use water just to keep the crop alive during the dry winter," Hill said.