Ranch Diaries: Spared from drought, for now, in New Mexico

Dry spells take a toll on landscapes and livestock, but are also hard on people.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

  • Drought makes for dusty corrals. Clay Tyree and Sam rope a cow.

    Photo by Preston Bates
  • A better year on the Gila lease

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • After a 3 foot snowfall at the Snowline.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Halloween at Cow Camp 2.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • After disappearing for three months, Coconut the elk has decided to move back in.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Detail of an oil painting the author is working on in class.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Even ranch cats get to play.

    Laura Jean Schneider

With all the current conversation about drought, it’s been a relief to see the U.S Drought Monitor map of southwest New Mexico transform to drought-free. This year we had rare spring rains, which jump-started the dormant grass. Even though the usual monsoons weren’t as generous as last year, there was strong, early forage growth. And a second growth is popping up in some areas from the recent fall rain — also unusual. The pastures we’ve rotated through have well over 50 percent of the forage base remaining. In fact, Mescalero Cattle Growers has asked if Triangle P could possibly increase stocking to help remove some of the decadent forage.

Our steers gained an average of a pound per day the entire time they were here, and the heifers raised calves that, even when weaned early, weighed from 400 to 425 pounds. We’re heading into winter feeling pretty optimistic. Unlike the West Coast, most of New Mexico has had above average precipitation. For the first time since Sam and I started ranching, we officially live in a drought-free area.

But what if that trend reverses next year? In ranching, no matter how carefully you plan to reduce risk, you answer to the weather first. That can be an extremely stressful reality. In addition to taking a toll on landscapes and livestock, drought is hard on people. When cattle have lived their entire lives on one ranch, it’s difficult, emotionally and financially, for ranchers to downsize their herds. In droughts, the market is often flooded with cattle, and it’s optimistic to hope to break even. It’s heartbreaking to watch once lush areas dry up, dirt tanks shrivel to cracked earth, and ribby cattle attack expensive supplements that are only a short-term fix. It’s hard to watch wildlife suffer too, knowing that they don’t have the emergency option of being gathered and shipped out on trucks to somewhere more verdant.

One year, after assessing what was generally a very productive Forest Service permit on the Gila, Sam and I made the decision not to stock it at all. Not because we were forced to make that choice, but because it was clear that without sufficient moisture, that ecosystem was threatened. Had we been greedy or overly optimistic, the landscape and the cattle would have suffered. While it’s necessary to take risks in ranching, it seems unwise to do so at the expense of the range that makes ranching possible.

Checking reliable data and getting out horseback or afoot regularly can help us monitor and anticipate potential drought issues. Sam and I will continue to do what we can to make savvy choices on behalf of the Triangle P. Yet no matter how muddy the road to camp or how full our rain gauge, at the back of our minds niggles the hard fact that the one element we have no control over dictates if we make a living — or not.