Rangeland still waiting for rain

Lane Grau of Grady has sold about 30 percent of his cattle over the last couple years because his land could not support grazing.

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Baird

Lane Grau kneels down to get a better look at the dead turf on his property. He estimates one-third of the turf on his rangeland has been reduced to a dead-gray stubble.

Grau estimates that a third of his rangeland is dead turf due to the drought.

According to the USDA Weekly Crop & Weather Report, Curry County is experiencing extreme drought, and a large portion of Roosevelt County is experiencing exceptional drought. Exceptional drought is the most severe condition on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The drought has not been kind to ranchers, whose cattle rely on rangeland grasses for sustenance.

On April 15 the Crop & Weather Report made a note specifically to Curry County that read, "Rangelands needing rainfall soon to get growing season started on native grasses."

The rainfall has not come.

Grau isn't the only rancher who's had to sell a portion of his cattle. The most recent USDA report published on April 22 made another note specifically for Curry County that reads, "Cow-calf ranchers trying to hold a remnant of their herds, but many are selling a load or two a week, reducing grazing pressure of extremely dry and short pasture."

"I have never seen it this bad," said the 51-year-old Grau. His rangeland is marked by large patches of gray stubble — dead turf. Most of his property is filled with yellow grasses, but even the yellow grass isn't plentiful. Green grass is scarce and mixed in with the yellow grasses.

"Some of the grass has greened up from the snow," Grau said, "but it's withering now."

Grau also farms organic winter wheat, but drought took its toll on the crop. He said his winter wheat is only 4-5 inches tall when it should be between 8-12 inches tall. It isn't thick and vibrant like should be either, Grau said.

Because he can't sell his crops, Grau moved 24 head of cattle onto the winter wheat field for grazing last week. He said the crop will feed the cows for two to three weeks.

Cattle can feed on yellow grass, but yellow grasses are lacking in nutrition they need. To compensate, Grau feeds his cattle cow cakes; pellets close to six inches long and filled with protein, vitamins and minerals. He said each head of cattle eats about seven pounds of cow cake per day.

Grau's said his feed expenses have tripled since March 2011. He spends about $8,800 on 24 tons of cow cakes every six to eight weeks. He has also had to take out emergency feed loans from the Farm Service Agency.

Keith Duncan, a brush management and rangeland conditions specialist at the Artesia Science Center, said rangelands in the Curry-Roosevelt region need to receive about one and half times the normal rainfall amount for a couple of years to return to normal health.

As the drought persists, Duncan said wind and fire can exacerbate rangeland conditions. He said wind dries out what little moisture there is and blows top soil away, which is never good for plants.

Grau said, "I've never seen it this dusty."

According to Duncan, wildfires will burn hotter, faster and burn deeper into the ground as the fire consumes roots. He said this will extend the amount of time it takes for the land to heal after a fire.

When asked what he will do if the drought continues Grau said, "I imagine I'll be forced to sell the rest of my cattle. I may be forced to get a job."

"Everybody needs to keep praying," Grau said. "It's the only way I know how to fix it."

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