Southwestern Drought Crushing Ranchers, Farmers

Extra dry weather in the southwest region of the United States is roasting production for farmers and ranchers.

Texas A&M Universitys AgriLife Extension service reports that farmers and ranchers have lost more than $1.5 billion in crops and livestock.

But its not just a dry spell across Texas and New Mexico.

Dr. Rhonda Skaggs, professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University Las Cruces, said the little amount of snow that fell in southern Colorado, which irrigates down the Rio Grande River, is to blame, too.

This region, southern New Mexico and far west Texas, have been double hit with precipitation issues in the past year or so, said Skaggs. The already very low ranging cattle on the grazing lands will be even lower than it typically is, added Skaggs.

Skaggs said that in the big picture, the drought and lacking irrigation isnt going to damage Texas and New Mexicos agricultural economy too significantly. But for independent farms and ranches that rely solely on agriculture for income, the pain will be real. The people who make their living off of those products, those crops, and livestock commodities, they are going to be hurt, and they are going to be impacted very negatively.

Ranchers are seeing very little grass grow on their grounds.

Jimmy Bowen, owner of Bowen Ranch has been forced to buy hay from east Texas and have it shipped to his property in El Paso. Financially, its been disastrous, said Bowen.

He couldnt keep up with the high cost of transporting hay to feed his calf-breeding herd of 1,500, so he sold all but 300 to auction. Its been devastating, he added.

He predicts that production will be down and sales for the coming months arent looking lucrative. They breed cattle all year-round, and this year they are expecting a huge drop.

Its just not going to be a good year, no matter how we work it.

Wineries in the southwest are feeling the effects of the drought, too.

Ken Stark, owner of La Vina Winery in La Union, N.M., has no water in his irrigation ditch. With that, and on top of having only a couple of rainy days since February, hes forced to pump water out of his well. The pump is powered by diesel fuel, and its costing him thousands of dollars every month.

Hes not cutting back employees, and he cant raise prices in a competitive market, so hes simply eating the extra costs.

Probably 25% of [southern New Mexico] valley crops will be taken out of production this year because of the lack of water. For some of his neighbors who have no wells, he hopes they have some other source of income. Without a well, the crops cant grow in the little bit of water that they get out of the ditch and theyll probably not be able to make a crop this year.

Bowen, 78, started working on the 88,000-acre ranch stretching from El Paso into southeast New Mexico when he was a young child. He said this is the worst drought hes witnessed in decades. Hes even hired four extra ranch hands to distribute hay and additional water for his herd as the cows are now more spread out across the ranch.

Bowen is optimistic that he will see his business rebound. Its been tough, but weve been through tough times before.

Skaggs said there isnt a clear picture yet if the slowing down of cattle production will impact how much Americans will have to pay for beef.

The impact to the consumer at this point is unknown.

For now, she says all people can do is hope for a lot of extra snow this to fall in southern Colorado this winter so the irrigation ditches can be refilled.