Ranch Diaries: After a dry spell, we finally have good rain at the ranch

We altered our grazing plan early in the summer to account for aridity, but now we’re rolling in forage.

 

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 two years of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

The air is humid and thick, as muggy as New Mexico gets. Since the normal July monsoons were all but nonexistent, this weather signals a collective sigh of relief for ranchers: It means we’ve had rain.

There’s nothing like a long dry stretch to remind me that what we’re doing for our livelihood is ultimately dependent on the weather. Some rare rainfall at our camp in May gave us hopes that the summer would be a wet one. June brought a half-inch. July, usually our wettest month, was relentlessly hot. It was hard not to compare this year to last, where the cows were knee-deep in forage. Looking out at the rapidly browning landscape, it was clear we were going to have to change our grazing plan. We had to use some pasture we normally reserve for winter use. At one point, cattle were in four separate pastures when no single water point could provide enough water for the whole herd. While it had been raining all summer in the higher country, it rained just once at Cow Camp Two in late July.

But that one time, it rained over two inches in a one-hour period. The horse pasture near the house exploded in green, setting off the newly painted white of the outhouse and renovated hay shed /chicken coop. Dirt tanks and shallow ponds caught rainwater. It was time to move the rest of the cattle from our winter country, near our camp, to the mountains, where the feed was better, the temperature was cooler, and the water was more abundant.

  • The author roping at a Corona ranch branding.

    Virginie Pointeau
  • Potatoes fresh from the garden.

  • Owen rides Hoot to move pairs to higher country.

  • The current state of our vehicles.

  • It's starting to feel like home.

  • Kersone lamps until the solar is hooked up!

  • The new logo of our new beef company, Big Circle Beef.

Doing this involves a sort of relay. One day, two people might gather a large bunch of cattle to a new water point. The next day, one person can sort out 30 or so pairs — making sure a bull is with each group — and start them up the mountain. Cattle move better earlier in the day, and it was no exception in the July heat. We had weeks that hovered in the 90’s, and set an interior-of-the camper record of 99 degrees.

Then came August. It rained six days of the first week alone. The ground is saturated, and roads have become tricky to navigate. But we love mud, as I tell guests. It means moisture and moisture means grass, and grass means feed and feed means beef and beef means money. It’s not just the cattle who have benefitted, either. The crickets sing almost nonstop, and after the big July rain frogs appeared for the first time this year. The potato plants in my garden have yielded flavorful new potatoes that we savored with burgers a few nights ago. The chickens are ranging far and wide to pluck new green shoots and enjoy the insect buffet found nestled in the grass. The yard surrounding the new-old house is knee-high with weeds in places, and I’d thought it would never grow back from the impact of construction.

Our job now is to keep the lower areas of our pastures as winter feed, riding to move the pairs back to high country when they mosey down to the flats. It’s also critical to keep the bulls with the cows so they all have a chance of breeding back. Horseback or in a ranch vehicle, there’s ongoing water monitoring to see where to move cattle next. Taking advantage of rainfall in this way allows us to use seldom-utilized areas within a pasture, saving grassy areas around pipeline fed tanks for when we really need them.

The cattle aren’t the only ones moving around. We’ve gathered our belongings from our Arizona storage unit and moved them in. Sam's niece and her boyfriend, visiting from Brooklyn, New York, were our first official house guests, now that the water is turned on and we’re pretty much moved in. This week, we’ll finish getting the solar system hooked up and start the transition from tiny camper to cozy home. Hopefully the delayed rain will continue. Hopefully, the grass will continue to flourish. Hopefully, the stress is over, for the moment.