Area farmers, ranchers say federal aid little help in drought

Freedom New Mexico: Alisa Boswell Roosevelt County farmer Gene Massey harvests some of his wheat crop Friday in Rogers, southeast of Portales. He said the yield is down from 20 bushels an acre last year to 5-12 bushels an acre this year.

Argen Duncan

Drought is making this year more difficult for area farmers and ranchers, and they say federal aid programs are little help.

Dry weather is causing increased input costs and low crop yields, while high fuel prices add to the trouble.

Gene Massey, who grows dryland milo and wheat near Rogers, said the drought is widespread.

“Just about any place in agriculture you can talk about, it’s critical,” he said.

Floyd farmer Allen Deen said he hasn’t been able to plant dryland crops because of the lack of moisture.

“We got some pretty good moisture, but the winds and the heat have taken it all back out,” Deen said.

With the low humidity, he said, evaporation takes 3/4 inch to an inch of moisture out of the soil every day. In addition, Deen said he cuts alfalfa for people who have seen such a drop in their water table that they can’t keep the fields wet, even with sprinklers, due to the hot, dry wind.

Alfalfa yields are a quarter of what they were last year, he said. The low supply leads to high feed prices for dairies.

Massey said his dryland wheat produced 5-6 bushels an acre in fields that grew wheat last year, and 12 bushels an acre in fields that were fallow and able to build up soil moisture last year. In 2010, his fields produced 20 bushels an acre.

Fifteen bushels an acre is the county average, Massey said.

Although this year is dry, he said, 2009 was worse.

Rick Ledbetter, who farms near Portales, said the drought has brought extra stress, effort and costs.

“Because all of my ground is irrigated, I have the option of going ahead and getting the crop in,” he said.

However, having to put twice the usual amount of water on the crops has cost more money, as has using a rotary hoe and water to keep the sand from blowing in the wind, Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter said his irrigated wheat wasn’t as far along in its growth as it should have been.

Woods said some farmers’ irrigated wheat was stunted by a late freeze. His dryland wheat was declared a loss by insurance appraisers about a month and a half ago.

With the drought, the fields were producing 3 bushels an acre, which means it would cost more to grow the crop than the harvest would have been worth. Last year, Woods’ fields produced 30 bushels of wheat an acre, he said.

However, he said his expenses would probably be a lot less this year because he didn’t have to fight weeds. Also, Massey said wheat prices are high, around $8 a bushel.

With no rain, Woods said, there’s little for his cattle to eat. He’s participated in the emergency grazing of Conservation Reserve Program grass, the only federal aid program he plans to use.

Not only does it feed the cattle, Woods said, but the grazing removes fuel for wildfires.

In an unusual but beneficial situation, he said, cattle prices are high, so ranchers can sell if they need to do so.

“Usually in a drought, the cattle aren’t worth anything either,” Woods said.

Wesley Grau farms and raises registered Charolais breeding cattle in northern Curry County.

He’s had to provide much more supplemental feed than he would in a normal year. When the grass is dry the cows need protein from other sources to provide milk for their calves and conceive again.

Also, the grass lacks its normal amount of water, so Grau has to supply additional water for the cattle.

Droughts tend to cost him an extra $10,000 to $20,000 a month, he said, most of it for feed. Fuel costs more from traveling and moving livestock and expenses with pumping extra water also play a part.

Grau said he may get into a federal program to help with feed costs in the next couple of weeks. He doesn’t want graze CRP grass because most of that land has no water or fences, and the grass is so low in protein and water that he still has to supplement the food.

“If I have to supplement, I’ll supplement on my grass, which is getting pretty scarce,” he said.

With his grass almost gone, Grau plans to move his herd or do something different, maybe in a few weeks, even if it means grazing CRP land.

Deen said he isn’t interested in the low-interest loans area producers are eligible for because of the recent Primary Disaster Area declaration.

“You can’t borrow yourself out of debt,” he said.

Massey said most farmers already work with a lending institution and don’t want the loans.

The Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program helps a little, but it runs two years behind and requires a lot of paperwork and records, Massey said. He also said insurance can be beneficial, but it’s expensive.

“We just always hope for a better year next year, you know,” Massey said. “That’s all you can do.”