Dry weather leads to lean cattle

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Absent from the usual High Plains landscape is the fresh green of winter wheat. But with little expected relief from drought-like conditions, crisp, amber fields are just one harsh reality farmers and ranchers in the region must confront.

As the major source of food for cattle withers, many have been forced to sell calves prematurely.

“There’s not much green out there. The wheat has disappeared and cattle are being sold real light. They can look awful poor because they are so skinny,” said Pat Woods, a local wheat farmer and member of the Curry County Farm and Livestock Bureau.

Area wheat farmers traditionally pull calves from their fields in March after five or six months of winter wheat grazing. In that period, the animals can double their weight, and farmers can make quite a profit, Woods said.

Not so this year.

“I’d say farmers are just breaking even,” Woods said. “There is a saying in the cattle business that pounds weigh more than dollars. The more (cattle) weigh, the more they bring. Anytime you have to sell one light, you are not making more money.”

There has been a “full decline” in the sale of feeder steers weighing more than 500 pounds, according to Wednesday’s Clovis Livestock Auction summary. But the market for cattle of any size remains relatively good, according to the owner of the Clovis Livestock Auction Charlie Rogers. Prices for medium and large steers weighing 300 to 400 pounds ranged from $159 to $165 per 100 pounds last week, according to that same summary.

So ranchers who haven’t run to local auctions are running to local feed shops. Even that is a risky alternative. One Stop Feed, Inc. of Clovis sold out of large bales of grass and wheat hay as of Monday and the supply won’t be replenished.

“We will have to wait for next year’s crop,” said the owner of the store, Lovita Hale, who has been referring customers to locals willing to sell their own stockpiles of the crop.

The store does have a supply of alfalfa hay, but at 10 cents a pound, it’s an expensive alternative, one most ranchers shun, Hale said.

Though they may not see profits from fattened cattle this spring, many area wheat farmers still hope a bout of rain will revitalize their crop. “There is hope that (the wheat) can come back. We can survive a little longer, but we need (rain) as quick as it can come,” Woods said.

Unfortunately, it may not.

A spokesperson for a Texas branch of the National Weather Service declared the Texas Panhandle — a region which in 151 days has received only 1.8 inches of precipitation — in a moderate drought, while also predicting drier months ahead.

“It’s going to stay the same or intensify as far as drought conditions (in the region) through April,” said Steve Bilodeau, an Amarillo based hyrdometeorological technician.

So for regional wheat farmers, one response seems increasingly apt: “Here in New Mexico,” said New Mexico Farm Bureau Director of Communications Erik Ness, “we plan for a drought, but we pray for rain.”