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Drought forces painful choices for New Mexico ranchers

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Monday, March 5, 2018 11:18 AM
Sandbars fill the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque. Most of New Mexico is dealing with some level of dryness, and extreme drought is increasing in the northwestern portion of the state.
A cow grazes alone on a stretch of open range north of Albuquerque on Thursday,. Officials with the Farm Service Agency in New Mexico say many ranchers are scrambling to buy up alfalfa reserves to supplement feed for their livestock as drought conditions are expected to intensify across the state.
A fire danger sign indicates conditions are extreme in the wooded areas along the Rio Grande on the northern edge of Albuquerque on Thursday.

ALBUQUERQUE – Some stretches of New Mexico have gone months without meaningful moisture, leaving farmers and ranchers with difficult decisions as forecasts call for drought to intensify.

Experts with the National Weather Service talked of snowpack levels in the mountain ranges that feed the state’s rivers ahead of the release Thursday of the latest drought map.

The map showed all but a sliver of southern New Mexico is grappling with 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 Arizona, Utah and Nevada are mired in drought. Significant portions of Texas and Colorado have also fallen behind in snow and rainfall.

Royce Fontenot, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said it would take more than the recent moisture to recoup 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 agricultural communities in New Mexico.

A small herd of cattle graze north of Albuquerque on Thursday. Officials with the Farm Service Agency in New Mexico say many ranchers are scrambling to buy up alfalfa reserves to supplement feed for their livestock as drought conditions are expected to intensify across the state.
Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press

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 to sell more. It will take years to rebuild the herd.

In the Mesilla Valley, farmer Jay Hill quickly sold his 2017 alfalfa reserves, and livestock are owners looking for more.

Most alfalfa grown in New Mexico is used by the dairy industry, and Hill said farmers and dairies will need to find middle ground on pricing.

Farmer also face pressure as irrigation sources are expected to be limited later this year.

“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.

Local connection

On March 4, snowpack in the San Miquel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River systems was 51 percent of average.
Lizard Head Pass: 57 percentLone Cone: 52 percentMancos: 39 percentSharkstooth: 40 percentSource: Natural Resources Conservation Service

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