Sunday, October 02, 2011

Drought & Decisions

Hopelessness and Hope
Management Decisions
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

     Bobby Flores is playing in the background and his lyric, ‘there is darkness on the face of the earth’ seems wholly appropriate.  Several days ago, we loaded too many living, breathing symbols of heritage and sent them down the road.  The most even set of red Angus cross heifer calves slated for herd replacements went to the sale barn.  They weren’t just the work and effort of 2011.  They represented eight years of planning and genetic strategy.
     The lingering high pressure that has devastated Texas has also profoundly impacted New Mexico.  To the close observer, the weather pattern that remained locked in place through September maintained a steady and insidious stranglehold on most of Dona Ana County and eastward.  Day after day of watching that pattern deliver rain into the Bootheel and up the west side of the state was tortuous.  There are ranches in that part of the country that were as good as any year in memory.
    Within sight of the rain shadow, though, there were also ranches in Dona Ana County that had received a total of 1.75” of rain . . . since October, 2010. 
     Nothing can be right in the minds and the world of those that face that consequence.  Words of devastation and despair are not off the mark when trying to describe the emotions of such an experience.
     The week of September 11 also saw the termination of the river flow out of Elephant Butte intended for Texas for the year.  Mesilla Valley farmers watched that water flow by similarly to the ranchers who painfully watched the monsoonal flows of moisture up the Arizona line.  There it was right there in front of them and yet it might as well have been a thousand miles away.
     The Adjustments
     The lingering drought is a microcosm of the difference of life spent in a locked relationship with natural conditions and life spent in controlled, manmade conditions.
Those heifers were an example.  Emotion suggested seeking some means to retain them.  Stewardship demanded that objective decision must be the course of action.  Both the land and the calves themselves were, in the end, more important than any emotion. 
     How different that is from the rest of the world we observe daily.  Why is there a difference in the natural world and the manmade counterpart in the face of shortages?  The fix is neglected, and, in the name of compassion, the hole gets deeper.  One thing can be assured, though.  Those that are expected to support the fix are less willing to shoulder the automatic expectations and the inherent demands.
     Speaking of Fix
     In the ranch world, the figurative barns we want to build to store enough grain to weather future droughts are made more distinct because our existence is at stake.  The shortfalls of all endeavors up to this time can be observed and even quantified.  If the drought did anything, it clearly defined those shortcomings. 
     As farmers and ranchers, my colleagues are well acquainted with the criticism that emanates from similar shortcomings.  In a society that is prone to vilify them and to seek their elimination from the landscape, 2011 should be recognized for what it is.  Without the high level of stewardship that exists, this drought would be absolutely catastrophic.
     Lessons from similar experiences in the past have given rise to myriads of improvements and adjustments.  Wells have been drilled, pipelines have been installed, drip irrigation technology has been adopted and constructed, brush control has been capitalized, planting dates have been adjusted to match particular conditions, calving periods are being adjusted to correspond to least cost calorie availability, and uncounted management adjustments have been conceptualized and adjusted to reduce the impact to the underlying resource in order to assure long term benefits for the whole system. 
     The results are amazing.  They are too often unreported, and more often unsupported.
     The sun rose this morning
      I slept little the night the calves were shipped.  Their bawling in those trucks leaving the corral remained in my ears, head and heart.
    Was the decision correct?  This morning I drove up to a water trough that is one of hundreds in Dona Ana County that are there only because of livestock.  There, standing in the early morning light, were several mule deer bucks that had been drinking.  They, too, displayed the effects of the drought, but they had water and their pasture conditions were made more positive because of the removal of those calves.  Hard as it was . . . the decision was correct.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico.  “On the day those calves were shipped . . . was there a single action by an environmentalist anywhere that had a similar positive benefit to any living thing as the act of trading the expense and the hopes in those calves for the immediate and lasting benefit to the whole system?”

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