Starting June 1, Floyd Archuleta and his brother were hauling a 4,000-gallon water tank and bales of hay out toward Tres Piedras at least once a week to supply their herd of 12 cow-calf pairs. The family owns 1,200 acres of grazing land on the west side of the gorge, but Archuleta says thanks to the drought, there was no grass and no water.

“It was scarier than heck,” Archuleta said.

Abnormally dry weather has put a squeeze on Taos County ranchers. Most are Hispanic and are continuing a long tradition of running small herds. While recent rains have filled stock ponds and turned pastures green — something Archuleta calls a “blessing” — for some ranchers, it may be too little too late.

Because of dry conditions, the Carson National Forest delayed the opening of grazing allotments in the high country, forcing ranchers to continue buying feed that is selling at record high prices. For ranchers who rely on their own alfalfa fields in the valleys to supply feed through the winter, dry conditions means their cuttings will likely amount to only a fraction of normal. In addition, dry conditions can lead to costly health problems in cattle.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Sheryl LaRue, executive director of the Taos County Farm Services Administration (FSA) office.

The FSA designated Taos County as a natural disaster area in January due to the drought. Last week, several counties in southern Colorado were also declared disaster areas.

The designation means ranchers are eligible for low-income emergency loans, but LaRue said that’s not a good option for most local producers. “People are hurting already, and they’re not eager to go further into debt,” LaRue said.

Ranching in Taos County isn’t exactly big business, but it is a strong cultural heritage. In 2007, the county ranked 31 out of 33 New Mexico counties in terms of the total number of cattle.

While they’re not big operations, LaRue said many of Taos County’s Hispanic ranchers use their cattle as a “savings account,” to be tapped only when they need quick cash. “They sink what they can into their herd, and if they need money for a wedding or medical expenses, they go to market,” LaRue said.

If the economics of holding onto a herd are inverted — it becomes more costly to keep the cows alive than they are worth — then small ranchers can see that investment slip away quickly.

“Some ranchers have sold off 60 to 80 percent of their cattle herds, and they’re continuing to sell for lack of grass or water,” said Lawrence Rael, executive director for the Farm Services Administration in New Mexico. “When you start selling off those mother cows, you can’t just replenish that livestock overnight, it could take several years.”

That’s if ranchers are willing to roll the dice by investing back into ranching, Rael said. If there are concerns that the drought will continue in the coming years, many ranchers may wait until the dry conditions pass, or give up entirely.

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