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The end of a way of life? Ranchers struggled to survive Southwest megadrought | farming

In April, Carla Gómez found herself seeking refuge in the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, not only for herself but also for 75 of her sheep.

As the flames began moving down the Cordillera Sangre de Cristo toward Los Vallecitos, his beef and lamb ranch in Mora County, he knew he had to flee. The fire was part of what would become the largest wildfire in state history, and his farm was directly in its path.

For five weeks, Gomez watched the news, eagerly awaiting updates. In early June, when he was finally safe to return, he discovered that about 100 acres of his 400-acre ranch had burned, but his house was still standing and the cows he had left behind were alive. Many of his neighbors were not so lucky.

Sheep on Carla Gomez’s property in Mora, New Mexico. Photograph: Ramsay of Give/The Guardian

“The people who had forest permits suffered a lot because they had to relocate their cattle,” Gómez said, referring to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which gave forest land for grazing to Hispanic residents of New Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War, and which has been passed down from generation to generation. “It’s been really devastating.”

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The wildfire is just one, albeit a particularly devastating, impact of a widespread drought facing the American Southwest and its ranchers.

Ranching in the Southwest has always been a tough business. Unlike the green pastures of the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic states, grasslands in places like Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas are vast, but also historically unpredictable, with more dry years than wet. Now, scientists are reporting that the drought that began in 2000 is the driest megadrought the region has experienced in 1,200 years.

A photo of the Mora Valley landscape at sunrise with fog in the foreground and mountains in the background
Sunrise in the Mora Valley in Mora, New Mexico. Photograph: Ramsay of Give/The Guardian

Many ranchers — some of whose families have been herding cattle in the Southwest for more than a century — wonder if their grandchildren will be able to carry on the tradition.

On 25,000 cattle farms They are found in the southwestern United States. But as drought conditions worsen across the region, two-thirds of ranchers report they have had to sell parts of their herds, according to a poll conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation this summer. Average herd size is expected to have decreased by 36% across the region in 2022, a figure that increases to 43% in New Mexico and 50% in Texas.

Increasingly hot and dry conditions in the US are also killing animals. In June, extreme heat killed 2,000 head of cattle in Kansas.

In the past, the federal government initiated subsidies to ranchers during dry years as a temporary measure to help them survive. Over the past decade, however, these temporary programs have become seemingly permanent: ways to support ranchers as they struggle to provide their cattle with adequate feed and water, or are forced to downsize their herds.

when the southwest monsoon season Beginning in mid-June, Gomez and her neighbors in Mora County quickly realized the fire had done more than burn large swaths of forest. As rainwater ran down the mountainside, with little vegetation to slow it down, silt accumulated in the county. irrigation ditcha community-operated irrigation system brought to the Southwest by Spanish settlers who learned the technique from the Moors.

“Right now, the irrigation ditch he’s not even running,” Gomez said. “But every time she rains, she gets silted up.” She knows that the community will prioritize cleaning up the irrigation ditch for future use, but it will take a lot of work. Meanwhile, ranchers and farmers living along the burn scar from the forest fire are facing extreme flooding, which could devastate their hay crops.

A burn scar from the fire and a dry ditch on Carla Gómez’s property. Photograph: Ramsay of Give/The Guardian
Carla Gómez tours her property with her grandson
Carla Gómez tours her property with her grandson, Luca. Photograph: Ramsay of Give/The Guardian

Farther east, along New Mexico’s border with Texas, Joe Culbertson Jr. and his family watched wildfire smoke blanket the sky as they drilled for water. Since the 1930s, five generations of the Culbertson family have herded cattle at WO Culbertson and Sons in Harding County. Traditionally, ranchers supplied their cattle with rainwater collected in ground tanks or water pumped from wells. However, in recent years, Culbertson says, the water table has dropped, meaning they have had to drill deeper wells and haul water to care for their livestock.

“The drought has put some stress on water sources,” Culbertson said. But dealing with drought is just part of ranching in the Southwest, he added, and while it looks like the Southwest is in a long-term drought, “that doesn’t mean it can’t have good years.”

A man and his dog in a car.
Joe and Charlie checking the water. Photographer: Courtesy of Vivian Culbertson

In addition to affecting their water supply, the drought has also affected ranchers’ ability to feed their cattle. They usually send their herds to enjoy the grasses that grow on the land, but they can supplement the cows with crops that grow during the summer or store-bought feed during the winter. But extreme drought has meant 71% ranchers they have driven their cattle from the pastures due to insufficient fodder, forcing them to buy feed, the price of which has risen.

On the Hopi reservation in Oraibi, Arizona, 500 miles west of Culbertson’s ranch, Lloyd Masayumptewa says the land his herd of about 70 cows grazes on has begun to change, affecting the food they have access to.

“The grasses can no longer hold the soil down,” Masayumptewa said. He says the wind has blown away much of the soil, leaving only the sandstone below, and invasive plants like tumbleweeds have replaced the grasses that once grew.

Darren Scott, a spokesman for the New Mexico office of the Bureau of Land Management, says drought conditions tend to favor plants that cattle can’t eat: “The least palatable plants, like creosote, are long-growing shrubs.” life that persist even during exceptional drought conditions.

A cow walks through a vacant lot south of Kingman, Arizona.
A cow walks through a vacant lot south of Kingman, Arizona. Photographer: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Due to drought, the Hopi tribal government asked ranchers to reduce or eliminate their herds last year. Masayumptewa and his family were not affected, but only because they had already reduced their herd from 100 to 70 cows due to drought a few years earlier.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have also asked ranchers with grazing permits to reduce the size of their herds during periods of drought. “Typically, ranchers make the decision to reduce herd size on their own,” Scott said. “Many ranchers on BLM land in New Mexico have already reduced the size of their herds due to drought in previous years and simply haven’t replenished.”

While Culbertson says his family has enough acres to manage about 1,400 cows, they have kept their herd size close to 1,200. “We try not to overgraze our country. That way we can get through the dry spells a little better,” he said. Remember what happened between 2011 and 2012, a period of extreme drought in the southern US and Mexico. The Culbertsons were able to feed their herd the same grass two years in a row because they kept their herd at 900 cows.

The federal government has tried to help ranchers. In the 2014 farm bill, a legislative package passed on average every five years to fund food and farm programs, made Congress Livestock Disaster Relief Program permanent: a previously temporary measure to compensate livestock producers who had suffered grazing losses due to drought.

In 2021, when the drought returned, the USDA announced further support measures ranchers to help cover the costs of hauling water and transporting feed for the cattle. Earlier this year, the USDA introduced yet another program to compensate ranchers for the impacts of severe drought and wildfires in the past two years.

Although ranchers have already begun to take steps to adapt to the drought, scientists believe they may need to make more significant changes for ranching to continue in the Southwest.

One suggestion, outlined in a 2020 article by researchers at the USDA, New Mexico State University, Texas A&M and other centers, is to consider change to a type of cattle which has adapted to the extreme conditions of the Sierra Tarahumara in northern Mexico, Raramuri Criollo, which seems better able to survive in the heat and on poor quality grasses and shrubs. The researchers also recommended the use of sensors to monitor water levels in troughs, soil moisture and herd grazing patterns for “precision farming” that allows a rancher to respond to changes faster.

A ranch in Mora Valley in Mora, NM.
Ranchers face adverse conditions as drought grips the US Southwest. Photograph: Ramsay of Give/The Guardian

Preparation of a drought plan, including a strategy to reduce herd size, is important, according to researchers at New Mexico State University. But as the drought continues, it may eventually have an impact on US beef availability.

In the midst of the monsoon season, the future of farming looks brighter. “If we keep getting this type of rain, it could help,” Masayumptewa said. “But certainly, if we go back to where the conditions were really bad…” he trails off.

Masayumptewa says it’s hard to imagine a future where he can’t raise his family’s cattle; it’s something he grew up doing. “You are used to dealing with those animals all your life. And then giving it up, it’s just that you’re so attached to it. It’s like they’re a family,” he said.

For many ranchers in the Southwest, their cattle are more than a source of income. “You have to remember that ranching is not a job,” said Culbertson’s wife, Vivian. “It is a lifestyle.”

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