TOWAOC – Water knows no boundaries – but neither does its absence. As the ongoing drought tries to suck the life out of ranches and farms, the cowboys and farmers who own and manage them are being forced to adapt.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch hosted an event Thursday, in collaboration with the Montezuma County CSU Extension, Western SARE and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to provide free educational opportunities on ranching during drought.
Although the event was held on tribal lands, it was open to the public – an element that the general manager of the 7,700 acre farm, Simon Martinez, said was critical.
“We’re all going through the same thing,” said Terry Knight Sr., the Tribal Historical Preservation Officer for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, before opening the event with a prayer. “We’re trying to figure out how we do this and still make a living.”
Roughly 60 people attended the workshop, which featured a series of presentations and concluded with an exercise to practice scoring the body condition of cattle.
Hardy Tozer, the livestock manager for Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise, has held such events in the past, although none have taken place in recent years. Extension specialists at Montezuma County CSU Extension approached him with the funding opportunity, and Tozer worked with them to put together a slate of speakers and workshops on ranching in drought.
Delane Atcitty, the executive director of the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance, presented on making decisions in times of drought with respect to herd management and financial choices.
CSU Regional Extension Specialist in Range Management Retta Bruegger led a presentation on range management considerations during periods of drought.
Tozer, who emceed the event, also presented on effective range supplementation.
For most of the events attendees, the information presented reaffirmed what they have experienced for two decades. Ranchers have become intimately familiar with the decreased capacity of their land to sustain cattle herds. Diminished precipitation has forced ranchers to become more savvy in their range management and learn anew how to graze their herds in a way that the land can support.
Ultimately, it comes down to balancing the demand of the herd and the capacity of the land.
“This is the 900-pound gorilla – demand cannot exceed supply,” Bruegger told the crowd. “No matter what we do in terms of grazing systems – we can have the best grazing system in the world – if there’s too much demand for forage, that’s a problem. You can rotate cows as fast as you want, if there’s too much demand, that’s a problem.”
Bruegger’s four recommendations for range management in drought
- Graze moderately, leave plants with photosynthetic material
- Rest rangeland when plants are capable of growing
- Avoid grazing in the same place at the same time each year
- Demand cannot exceed supply
Ranchers in attendance knew this, both out of intuition and instinct. They have been forced to shrink their herds and seek alternative revenue sources.
“In order to survive in this area, you have to be more strategic,” Atcitty told the crowd. “You can’t just say ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ Then you’re digging more into your pocket to make this happen, and then it becomes a lifestyle and legacy.”
Sustainability, presenters said, is the only way forward.
Atcitty implored ranchers to avoid over relying on alfalfa and compared the practice to giving alcohol to an alcoholic. Tozer said feeding herds alfalfa rather than using the land is quick fix that fails to address the larger picture.
“In this day and age, a lot of us – the Ute Mountain Tribe themselves, a lot of the individual cattle owners here – are grazing on public lands, whether it's BLM, whether it's national forests,” Tozer said in an interview with the Durango Herald. “There's a lot of other interest groups that are taking an interest in public land grazing issues. And so we’re trying to adapt to where we can coexist, and we can try to try to continue grazing on those lands.”
Ranchers recognize that sustainability is necessary not just for the conservation of lands, but for the longevity of their own operations. Atcitty suggested culling herds in order to bank sections of pasture for winter, thus conserving land and allowing ranchers to save on alfalfa expenses.
He stressed the alternative opportunities upon which some major ranches have capitalized, such as ecotourism, can pad ranchers’ bank accounts.
“At Taos Pueblo, we’ve got one hunt that they offer to non-natives,” Atcitty said. “One hunt (for one Big Horn sheep), $150,000, and that helps pay for the natural resource department.”
Both he and Bruegger highlighted the ways in which technology has changed the enduring profession. Whether it’s live weather forecasting, access to current market rates or calculating the carrying capacity of rangeland, cellphones have enabled ranchers to make more informed decisions.
Bruegger introduced a rangeland carrying capacity app she and some Colorado State University students created that allows ranchers to input variables such as cattle size, land productivity and the desired consumption rate to get a rough estimate of how much space a given herd of cattle can graze on the land.
Still, Bruegger said it was important to “never trust an app more than your own judgment.” And ranchers say they don’t.
When asked if he had used apps, Cortez rancher Tim Bradshaw, said “not so much.”
“It's still pencil and paper,” he said. “I think (technology) is good to have, but it's on a wide spectrum. You can't you can't gather information from one individual outfit and extrapolate it to the rest of the country.”
Tozer noted that incorporating technology could be important not just for current ranchers but their successors as well.
“The agriculture and the livestock industry – you've heard it said for years – it's kind of a dying breed, but it honestly is,” Tozer said. “ … Maybe if we can host something like this and if there's some of the younger generations that are wanting to be a little bit more tech savvy (rather) than be on a horse or something, they can still be involved. This is showing them a great avenue that they can be involved with their families ranching heritage by being tech savvy.”
The event drew not only experienced ranchers, but also those interested in trying their hand at the lifestyle – at least in Leonard Begay’s case. The retired power plant worker said that he and his wife and children have never farmed or managed livestock before, but are hoping to give it a try. He drove up from Fruitland, New Mexico, for the event.
Begay’s main take-away was that success in the face of challenging circumstances would be dependent on his family’s collaboration.
“Teamwork, I think, as a family working together, you can overcome these obstacles,” he said.
Martinez, the farm’s manager, said that although the information was not necessarily new to ranchers, the reminders are helpful. But more importantly, the event provided an opportunity for tribal and nontribal members to convene and learn from their shared experiences.
Limited water allocations from McPhee Reservoir affects everyone, Martinez said. Although the region has a snow pack 130% above average, potential good news this year does not alter the long-term reality ranchers face.
“We are farming in the desert, we are operating cattle in the desert,” he said. “It goes back to resources, which in this case is water.”