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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Mexico Rangeland Positioned for Drought Comeback

LAS CRUCES - More than 80 percent of New Mexico is considered rangeland, and a New Mexico State University researcher estimates that the state's prolonged drought has toasted more than half the forage supply on the range.

Jerry Holechek, a New Mexico State University range scientist, monitors grass on experimental plots at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center near Las Cruces. A timely break in the drought, coupled with eight years of careful grazing management, could bring millions of acres of rangeland grasses back to near normal within two to three years. (05/23/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

On the positive side, it turns out that the state's ranchers are well positioned for a return of rangeland grasses in two to three years, assuming the current drought breaks, said Jerry Holechek, an NMSU range scientist.

"The good news in this go-round is that they sold their livestock early and didn't restock," he said. "As a result, we've have had fairly light grazing pressure on the range for the last eight years. And that has really helped reduce the effect of the drought, even though it's been severe."

For a little perspective, last year Holechek estimated that his experimental research plots at the university's 64,000-acre Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center produced a quarter of their normal forage because of the drought.

"And last year was better than the previous two years," he said. "Those years were two of the worst on record. We had almost nothing growing on those plots."

As New Mexico's range goes through a drought cycle, the plant cover disappears, particularly the grasses. By the end of the drought, much of the basal cover or crown area of the grasses is largely gone.

Normally, it takes about two years for perennial range grasses to rebound significantly, Holechek said. With adequate rainfall during the first year, the grass develops buds in the crown and attempts to restore its root system. The following year, the buds will shoot up into taller grasses with near-average forage production, he said.

"We've had astonishingly good grazing management among our ranchers," Holechek said. "The drought hasn't officially broken, so it's hard to compare it with the 1950s drought, but the data indicates it was as bad as or worse than that drought. I'm really encouraged by how good the country looks considering the severity of the drought."

Producers are much better informed and experienced now, he said. In addition, they're better trained in range management.

The winter of 2004-05 was the wettest in more than a century of record-keeping in New Mexico, and over the past year, the entire state of New Mexico has seen above-average precipitation, according to the National Weather Service's Albuquerque office. Whether this ends long-term drought conditions that have plagued New Mexico since the late 1990s remains unclear.

"Things are starting to look up, though," said Holechek, who was awarded this year's Society for Range Management W.R. Chapline Research Award. "We had good rain in the autumn, a very wet winter and good carry through this spring. Historically, these droughts have lasted on the order of 10 to 12 years, and we should be at the end of this one based on historic norms. So, I think there's room to be optimistic that the rain will continue."

Officials are making several recommendations to cattle producers as they move into the new season.

"If you've been hard hit by the drought and you get rain, wait until the end of the growing season before making stocking rate decisions," Holechek said. "Don't put more than 50 percent of your normal stocking capacity out on the land after the drought breaks," he said.

Then slowly build up the herd 10 to 20 percent a year to come return to capacity, he said.

Another avenue for cattle producers to follow is using a NMSU software model that predicts southern New Mexico forage production based on rainfall. The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also has recently developed forage production and precipitation models as well. In addition, the NRCS provides drought insurance to cover forage losses.