The Drought Diaries

Devastating Drought Is Targeting New Mexico With Its Worst

By Sage Faulkner

My husband and I raise cattle and three children on a ranch we lease in north central New Mexico. This ranch is for sale, but the prices are such that cows will not ever be able to make the payments. So, we ranch while we can and we are thankful for the opportunity to raise our children here, at least for the time being. We borrowed money for our own little set of cows and in good years, we run outside yearlings.

It isn’t a good year for that, as the snowpack in the mountains above us was almost non-existent this winter. Our part of the state is the deep brick red of extreme drought on the drought maps. The mild winter was good in some ways, we fed less and grazed more, and calving was easy without snow-filled spring storms. The semi-serious joke we shared with friends was that not feeding in January meant we would be feeding in June. We made it through June without feeding, but that reality still isn’t far away. We are fortunate to have some of our winter feed, as the mild winter meant we didn’t use all of it, but we will have to purchase some, and availability and prices will both be a significant challenge this year.

Almost half of this ranch has flood irrigation. Little ditches, or acequias, as they are called here, run across pastures and we manage them with a shovel. In a good year, with ample snowpack, the ditches are full, and we can’t keep up with the water. This year, the ground is so dry that it has deep cracks. When I do get water into a ditch, it often follows the cracks, looking for the quickest way out. Silt fills ditches faster than I can dig them out. Keeping water spread out across pastures has been my frantic chore this spring and early summer: the water in the ditches will not last the whole season. We didn’t get the normal green spring carpet across the pastures this year. Grass didn’t even get a chance to grow across much of this ranch. Irrigation has been the only green here, and filling tanks and watering pastures has been harder than most years.
Our son qualified for the National Junior High Rodeo Finals in Huron, South Dakota. His event is saddle bronc steer riding, and when we came home from state finals, he offered to irrigate as a way to help our family with the extra expenditures of getting him there. It is a hard year for irrigating, but we gave him an easier area to irrigate, though he would often come in frustrated with how little progress he made. He struggled with making dirt dams that would last long enough to push water where he wanted it. Orange tarps, strengthened with oak branches from the ranch, help where dirt dams wouldn’t stay. He worked hard, but the results were tough to see.

I love that our children are learning how to work and get dirty, in dust and occasional mud, with stock and soil. They have always been quick to pray for rain, and to be thankful for it when received. A lot of our family talks around the dinner table this year have revolved around drought. It looks like our new “normal” is a drought every four to five years, so they are aware of making adjustments for such years. They are feeling the impact as their 4-H show lambs cough in the dust and watching our water usage means bathing them less. Their feed costs have gone up, and the handfuls of green grass they normally grab for treats for their animals are hard to find.

Our youngest daughter asked if we would have to sell our cows, and we only answered with “hopefully not.” They are resilient kids, and we are trying to make the ranch resilient. It is all a work in progress, and the drought, while forcing our hand in some ways, adds challenges we were hoping to wait a few more years to work on. We are starting to see neighbors sell cattle. We have more flexibility than some because we run outside cattle. This gives us the option to reduce numbers quickly, but the drawback is that there is simply no revenue for the year. We also gave up a part-time job checking cows for another rancher in the mountains nearby, so our pockets are feeling the squeeze. We made that decision so that we could spend more time with our kids, and while it was the right decision for us, we are having to pinch our pennies double, now. We have watched some families nearby sell out two times in the last ten years. For the first time since we bought our cows, I have thought about what it means if we sell them, if we can even pay off the loan, and what will happen if the cows we call ‘our girls’ aren’t here to help us manage this ranch.

Building a set of cows that fit your place is hard, and it takes time. Cattle can be a tremendous tool for managing the land, but in a drought sometimes we forget to look ahead as we fight the battle at hand. Our attempts to build soil are set back, and the project we started to cover all the bare spots in pastures with mulch to build organic matter has mostly blown away. Elk and deer are grazing right beside our cattle, as fires and lack of feed and water give them fewer options. Grazing rotation plans must be adjusted constantly now, as the irrigation drops, the game comes in, and the grasshoppers appear. There is so much to keep balanced and keeping it all in perspective feels like hard work.

For us, we know that we have a lot of maybes in our equation. That forces us to appreciate what we have today and consider that rebuilding is always a possibility. I am always pretty optimistic, I think most farmers are, or they wouldn’t be in this profession. The rains will come, and we will do our best today with what we have, in the hopes that tomorrow we will get to continue the work that we love, in a place that we love.

By Beth Karberg
Osito Organic Orchard co-owner and water resource engineer

When we purchased our 30-acre orchard five years ago, one of the more striking qualities of the property was the excellent water rights that were included. With the entire farm now irrigated by high efficiency micro-sprinklers, we’ve had access to more water than we could use.

Not this year. Though we’re not quite at the level of drought experienced in the Sierra Nevadas in 2014, we’re in uncharted territory this year. Snow pack on the Grand Mesa, which provides the water to our irrigation ditch system, is less than 50% of the recorded median. The runoff that usually swells our streams in the spring never came, and what little snow there was finished melting about a month earlier than typical. It’s been seven weeks since we’ve had any significant precipitation. We’ve reviewed our complex collection of water rights and the historic diversion records, looking at the droughts of 2002 and 1977 to get an idea of how much water we can expect to have this year, and how long it will last, but it’s just a guess.

Our irrigation systems have generally been supplied by a variable, but reliable, supply of snow melt. They’re designed for an adequate water supply, not for droughts. The 29 reservoirs on Grand Mesa that supply our irrigation water after the short high-water runoff in spring, no longer have functional gauges to tally how much water is available, so we rely on the estimates of experienced ditch managers. Water from the ditch system is delivered to our farm through a split box, an elegantly simple way of proportionally dividing water between users, but we don’t have an actual way to measure the absolute amount of water that we are receiving.

Once the water is turned out of the irrigation ditch, we share it with two other properties, again without any way to measure those divisions. This system all works remarkably well when there’s enough water to go around, but it doesn’t meet the needs of managing the system when the water supply is significantly less than we are used to getting. We don’t really know how much water we are getting, how much is passing to our neighbors, or how much water is available for the rest of the season. Even if we were able to reasonably estimate how much water we are taking, and the detailed spreadsheets kept by the ditch manager log our conservative use, I wonder if the water theoretically left in our account will be truly available in a reservoir in September.

What this situation means to our farm this year is yet to be seen. So far, it’s been more stressful and taken more time to manage, but the trees have been watered. We considered not planting new trees this year, but then decided to go ahead and plant the trees we ordered two years ago. We also considered putting in a drip irrigation system on the new plantings but stuck with micro-sprinklers to get the water and soil conservation benefits of cover crops between our tree rows. Others have decided not to put in new trees this year. Farming is always a gamble; the drought this year means the level of uncertainty is just a notch higher, a big notch.

Here are my own bullet points on where we are this year.

The System:
· Motivation for water use efficiency and improved water management
· Vulnerability of the Colorado River supply
· West Slope – East Slope tensions
· Farming on the margins

The Community:
· Cooperating and competing
· Stress & improved management
· Hedging our bets, keep the day job

By Erin Nissen

In 2002 when extreme drought hit the San Luis Valley, I was still in junior high. I had always listened to my dad talking about conserving water and watched how he farmed, but it wasn’t until that year, when our ditch out of the Rio Grande river didn’t turn on, that it really struck me how risky what he did for a living was.

After 2002, my father began dramatically changing how we farm. Even with all of our changes and improvements, the worry that we won’t have enough water the next summer is always there. Despite seeing hardship and worry in this business, I decided to come home to farm after college. I love what I do and can’t imagine a career not farming or in agriculture. But now I carry those same worries. Will there be enough water next year? Should we plant this field, or should we not? And even more looming, will our farming community meet a court-mandated deadline to refill our aquifer, or will the state have to shut down all the wells in our area.

How do you plan for that possible future? Do you prepare yourself to possibly need to sell the farm that you are working on as the fourth generation of the family and go somewhere else? Or can our farm find alternative options and stick it out?

When the water got short, we cut back on how many acres of potatoes and malting barley we grew. We then changed how much of a crop we grow on each field. Currently, all of the 120-acre fields we own and farm are separated into three 40-acre “blocks” with only one growing a cash crop. This has helped with lowering water demands per field, but scheduling irrigations and other management demands have gone up significantly.

Cover crops have become a major part of our rotation on the other two blocks, and with them, cattle. We now run 160 pair between the farm and a nearby rented pasture. The cows have been a great diversification for the farm and are a lower water use product. We can grow a good feed crop on less than half the water that it takes to finish a potato or grain crop, although we can’t get the same return that we could with potatoes.

And 15 years after the drought hit we had finally grown back up to the amount of potatoes we grew before 2002, yet we are still cutting back the acres of barley we grow each year. The winter of 2017 left us nervous about water once again and we cut back and did not plant potatoes in two fields as we had last year. That disappointing but it was the right thing to do. We would rather not plant a crop than not be able to finish it from a lack of water.

We enjoy growing potatoes and we are very excited to look for new crops and opportunities. I would say that my outlook for the future is cautiously optimistic. The valley, both as a whole and our farm, needs to continue to take steps to get better at using available water and to find new solutions to problems, but I think we can do it. Each year I see improvements in farming practices around me. Better focus on soil health and water use is becoming more common and cattle are grazing farm land that hasn’t seen livestock in over 30 years.

My great-grandfather bought the original 120 acres of the farm following the Great Depression and it has survived droughts and hardships before. I hope that we can continue as well by being innovative and trying new ways of improving how we farm.

 

Keeping The Dream Alive When Crops, Cows, And Cashflow Are Suffering

By Kyler J. Brown

My wife, Emily, along with our two young kids, and I live in the San Luis Valley, with our little herd of 40 mother cows. I work for my father-in-law, who owns a Russet potato and Coors barley farm. The San Luis Valley is an 8000-feet high, flat mountain valley that receives between six and eight inches of precipitation annually, mostly in the form of snow. This Connecticut-size basin sits on a large aquifer that has been formed from millions of years of runoff from the surrounding mountains. The high number of wells and pivot sprinklers depend on this aquifer source for irrigation. The Rio Grande River is the main artery that feeds the valley both for surface and well irrigation rights. Other streams such as the Alamosa River, Conejos River and Sagauche Creek all keep farming communities alive and supplied with water. Potatoes, grain, alfalfa, and livestock are our main ag commodities.

We had some good rains last fall at the tail end of potato harvest that made for nice finale to the year. But after that, the winter storms just never came our way. I heard it was La Nina’s fault, but the reality is, it just never snowed. “Normally” (whatever that means anymore) Wolf Creek Pass on the Continental Divide gets 400 inches of snow a year. This year, I don’t think the snowfall broke 200 inches, and very little of that mountain moisture made it down to the valley floor. We had a dry winter combined with unseasonably high temperatures.

By the beginning of February, we started getting nervous. I kept asking other farmers and ranchers about the drought. They called me pessimistic and said there was still time. When I talked to the older generations, they still seemed resigned to the fact that there isn’t much anyone can do to make it snow. As what should have been our two wettest months – February and March – passed, I became more anxious. I talked to a fellow young rancher who was in the same boat as me. He had borrowed money to buy his herd and was now apprehensively looking at a summer with very little grass. The combination of grazing loss with the lack of hay, or dramatic increase in hay prices, could spell disaster for both of us. We were scared and leaned on each other for support.

At least the lack of inclement weather made calving season easy. Though, as I watched my hay pile dwindle, I started to wonder how to prepare for a long dry spell. I tried to talk to a few farmers about putting in cover crops under pivot irrigation to save on water. This practice would benefit the aquifer, especially in low recharge years. The cover crop could also be used as hay or grazing, which would help our cattle, especially when grass is in short supply. There are very few potato farmers who also run cattle in the San Luis Valley. I didn’t seem to get very much interest.

It seemed like we were all tripping over each other to get prepared. I had several offers to buy my hay supply, for already high prices, though I never really considered it because I wouldn’t be able to find any hay to replace it. I could tell the squeeze was coming. April came and the river jumped up a little. For a moment it seemed like things were nice. But that, I guess, was the proverbial calm before the storm. When the weather is ten degrees warmer than normal and you are getting high water in May, it means a long, dry, hot summer is on its way. Every time I checked the weather report, it showed storms going north and away from us. I drove across Southern Oklahoma to get a horse and couldn’t find a wheat field taller than a crushed beer can. I knew it wouldn’t be long before cattle started hitting the sale barn.

My father-in-law and I had applied for NRCS EQIP program funding to build cross fencing and dig two wells on the property where I graze our cattle. The thinking was that by decreasing our pasture sizes and increasing our ability to rotate the cattle, it would allow us to expand over the years. Now, it seems like these same tools could be the thing that allows us to keep our herd in drought years. The ability to manage overgrazing and stockpile feed for lean times might keep me from having to sell out.

Throughout the branding season the drought worsened. I spoke with a friend who had already sold one trailer load of cattle and was prepping another load to go to sale. He seemed to have a plan and he was executing it. Other ranchers didn’t seem to know what they were going to do if they couldn’t go to their summer ranges. It didn’t comfort me when fifth-generation ranchers admitted that they didn’t have a drought contingency plan. It made my own situation seem all the more in flux. What kept surprising me was how neighboring potato and grain farmers were going about business as usual. They might not be getting much ditch water, but the were going to plant and pump like a normal year. And this isn’t a normal year.

I purchased my cattle two years ago when the opportunity arose to lease a piece of river bottom pasture from my father-in-law. It was a great opportunity, as well as a risk. I wrestled with how I would financially swing this decision. With the help of a commercial bank loan and my parents chipping in, I bought 42 pair and two bulls. I was a rancher for the first time in my life. Now it’s two years later and I’m no richer. I have four years left on my cattle payments. That annual note seems to hang over my head all year. I told myself that if the cattle could just get through those first six years I would be sitting in better shape. Every year it seems to be such a stretch to get the revenue from calf sales to cover feed, fuel, vaccines, and my note. A drought is not what I needed.

My father-in-law and I have talked extensively about the drought. As we got closer to planting grain, he made a last-minute decision to leave a half-circle – that’s 60 acres – out of barley. This decision saved my bacon. He said if I bought the seed I could plant a cover crop in that 60 acres and put it up for hay. I had done that two years prior and we had good results, both with the feed and the farm ground. I’m not sure how long the grass on the river property will hold and when I’ll have to start feeding hay. Factoring in the cost of the seed, getting someone to bale it, and maybe having to feed a lot longer, it will still be expensive.

This financial limbo is at the heart of many conversations among young farmers. We take the risks and then work our butts off to make viable businesses. Then a little ole drought could come along and takes all that away. We could be worse off than if we had never taken the risk in the first place. I hear of ranchers selling cows left and right these days. I guess that is the contingency plan: sell. It might take 10 years to rebuild numbers, but that must just be the cycle of land and livestock.

It has been frustrating to see that cycle while other farmers who are able to pump water continue as if it is normal. But this experience has given me a clear eye about what happens to human nature in dwindling resources. Some folks steal pasture from friends. Some are trying pick up deals on cows at others’ time of loss. Some folks are doing their part to irrigate conservatively for the long-term good of the valley. Other folks are getting every drop they can to their head gate be damned! And still some help friends who have lost pasture and are trying to weather through the summer and not lose their herd.

As I walk through the river property as well as the little hay meadow on my place, I see the weeds have exploded. We have always had a persistent problem with Canadian thistle, but this year it is everywhere and budding out early. The nightshade and wild iris seem to be doing well anywhere that got a little early water. There are many weeds I don’t know the names of, but I have feeling I am going to get to know now. The grass is definitely taking a hard hit, and the opportunistic species are “making hay!” I have been trying to train myself to have a “grazer’s eye” for the feed capacity of a pasture. I am still unconfident in reading the grass well enough to know how long to keep the cows out grazing. I do know this drought can have long term effects if I let my own cattle set the pasture back for years to come. The weeds seem to be sending me a clear sign: don’t stay in one place too long.

If I make it through this year, I plan to keep the lessons I learn from this drought close at hand. I hope I never get greedy and arrogant, because Mother Nature has tricks up her sleeve to put you in your place. I have never been much of a praying kind of guy, but I do a lot of rain wishing these days! Good luck out there and I hope green grass and rainbows head your way, and mine.