Each day, eyes turn to the horizon. Searching out the shape of a cloud. Yearning for the glimpse of gray over the mountains. Hoping for rain.
Each day, the skies remain clear. The hot sun beats down upon the red earth of Montezuma and Dolores counties. The vicious winds race across the landscape, pulling moisture from the ground. The rain doesn’t fall.
The unmerciful spring has turned to an unrelenting summer.
For agricultural producers in Southwest Colorado, this is the story of drought. A day-to-day battle with the elements. The morning hope that today will bring much needed moisture. The evening disappointment when dust clouds continue to billow without the relief of showers.
As June of 2012 draws to a close and summer begins its relentless march toward harvest, local ag producers find themselves in a precarious position between the monsoonal rains of July and August and the bone-dry conditions on the ground.
“Everybody knows it is extremely dry,” said Dolores County CSU Extension Office Agent Kim Dillivan. “Seeds need some moisture to germinate and there just isn’t much moisture out there.”
Lower than average snowpack in the high country, intense winds, warmer-than-normal temperatures and a lack of spring rains have combined forces in a perfect storm that’s left Southwest Colorado dry and parched.
A DIFFICULT SPRING
Since January, the Cortez area has received just 2.59 inches of total precipitation, not quite 48 percent of average. Conditions grow more bleak moving north through Montezuma and Dolores counties. Dove Creek has recorded just 1.8 inches of precipitation this year, less than 35 percent of average.
The dry conditions have left farmers moving tentatively into the planting season, wondering if the rains will come in time to salvage an already difficult year.
A late freeze over Memorial Day weekend hurt hay production in the county, followed by a weevil infestation in many of the area alfalfa fields.
“The hay harvest in the area is down,” said Paul White, executive director of the Montezuma County Farm Service Agency. “It’s not due to drought, but due to the freeze. That really affected hay production. So we are already dealing with a tough year without the addition of drought.”
Wheat production in Montezuma and Dolores counties is also down, due to combined factors of freeze and lack of water. White estimates the local wheat crop has taken a 50 to 70 percent hit. Local farmer Destry Daves, a third-generation ag producer from Pleasant View, agrees.
“The wheat has done about what it is going to do,” Daves said. “There isn’t much we can do at this point. It isn’t good.”
Crop production in Montezuma county is a patchwork of different products and methods. Farmers in the region plant hay, wheat, beans, sunflowers and safflower, among other things. Each crop relies on different amounts of water at different periods in the growing season. Along with a variety of crops, the area is also home to irrigated and dry land farming.
MCPHEE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Thanks to the existence of McPhee Reservoir, irrigated crops stand the best chance of survival during drought conditions.
“(Irrigated crops) are not feeling a pinch because of the reservoir capacities,” White said.
On June 1, McPhee Reservoir stood at 106 percent of average and reservoir managers predicted the season will end with a surplus, albeit a small surplus. The reservoir’s full capacity indicates the ability of farmers to irrigate their crops without fear of cutoffs, but some producers are worried that increased irrigation usage early in the season will have a toll on reservoir resources.
“The drought is going to affect our irrigation water,” Daves said. “We are using a lot of water awfully early in the year and I’m worried about the level of the lake.”
Instream flow numbers are also worrisome for the reservoir. On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey placed Dolores River streamflow just above the reservoir at 12 percent of average, placing the river firmly under the classification of severe hydrologic drought. Lack of substantial flow on the river negatively impacts the chances of surplus moving into the 2013 water year.
DRYLAND CROPS DESPERATE
While farmers of irrigated crops are keeping a close eye on the levels at McPhee, dryland farmers are watching the skies, relying on the rains that typically fall and nourish bean crops.
“The doom and gloom is on the non-irrigated crops at this point,” White said. “That is where we need the water. And we need it soon.”
Soil moisture content is part of the picture of dryland crops, which rely on a base layer of moisture for germination and growth. White said though farmers have said they have to dig through eight to 10 inches of soil to find moisture, beans are growing throughout the region, which is a good indicator that the plants have found water.
“Driving around, the beans look good,” White said. “They are up, and that is amazing me to no end. They are up and in stands and they are not weak stands at this point.”
White said right now is a balancing act for area farmers. Too many more days without rain could spell disaster for the ag season, but if the rains come crops could turn around quickly.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” he said. “There is so much speculation right now. If we start raining in July we could get a good bean crop. If we start getting rains at normal or above normal it will change the entire outlook of the crops.”
“We are going to get a lot less than a good bumper crop this year, but if we get rain by July 4th, we might be alright,” he said.
DROUGHT IMPACTS LIVESTOCK
While farmers worry about the crops on the ground, area ranchers are hoping rain will lessen the impacts of drought on forage and allow their livestock to continue to graze on grasslands in the area.
Dillon Daves, a fourth-generation farmer from Dove Creek, runs cattle on dryland pasture. He said the drought has impacted the quality of grasses and forage in the area and is forcing him to examine how to feed his cattle through the year.
“I’m trying to cycle the pastures and move them from place to place, but I don’t really know what to do,” he said. “We’re gonna have to get rain or I’m going to have to start feeding hay.”
While some livestock producers in the region utilize private pastures for their cattle, many rely on grazing permits on public lands. Continued dry weather conditions will impact grazing conditions on those public lands, forcing producers and the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to work together to lessen impacts on grazing allotments. Oftentimes that may mean moving cattle off of certain allotments to allow the ground a respite.
“This is a low production year for grass, we just don’t have as much,” said Mike Jensen, a range management specialist for the Dolores Public Lands Center
Jensen and Kiley Whited, range management specialist for BLM’s Tres Rios office, both said decisions regarding grazing allotments during drought are made in partnership with producers. While the land managers are concerned about the health of the ground, producers are concerned with the health of the herds. The two often go hand in hand.
“It is a cooperative decision,” Whited said. “We try to keep them in business and keep them productive and they work with us so the allotments aren’t hurt for future use.”
Summer drought most often impacts winter grazing permits and Whited said rangeland managers will monitor ground conditions and meet with producers in October to discuss permit management.
“We will look at what is growing and what isn’t and where the water is and then meet with producers and make a plan,” he said.
A PASSION FOR THE LIFESTYLE AND THE LAND
With all of the obstacles farmers and ranchers must overcome in the face of drought, many would wonder why they continue to plant year after year.
For most, it is simple.
“It’s what I’ve always done, it’s who I am,” said Destry Daves. “This is all I’ve ever known. You learn to adapt to the situation. Every year is different.”
White said farming is a risk, but it is a risk that keeps producers coming back.
“Farming is a gamble; it is the most addictive gamble there is,” he said. “I call it a disease. Those of us who like it and love it and want to be in it, can’t imagine doing anything else.”
As for how the men and women of the land face the drought, knowing each dry day cuts into their crops and their livelihood, Daves said it is all about faith.
“You have to trust the Lord,” Daves said. “That’s how I get through it. You just have to dig deep and find the faith.”
And who knows, perhaps tomorrow it will rain.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at firstname.lastname@example.org.