Ranching in the Southwest has always been a difficult business. Unlike the green pastures of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, pasturelands such as Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas are vast but historically unpredictable, with drier years than wet ones.

Scientists now report that the drought that began in 2000 was the region’s driest mega-drought in 1,200 years. Many ranchers (some of whose families have been tending cattle in the Southwest for more than a century) wonder if their grandchildren can carry on the tradition.

There are approximately 25,000 ranches in the American Southwest. Two-thirds of ranchers have had to sell part of their herds as drought conditions worsen across the region, according to a survey conducted this summer by the United States Federation of Farm Services. By 2022, the average herd size across the region is expected to decline by 36%, with New Mexico down to 43% and Texas down to 50%.

Increasingly dry and hot conditions in the United States are also killing animals. A heat wave hit Kansas in June, killing 2,000 cattle. In the past, the federal government has made subsidy payments to ranchers as a temporary measure to help them survive in dry years. But over the past decade, these temporary programs appear to have become permanent. So how to help ranchers who are struggling to provide enough feed and water for their livestock, or who are forced to reduce their herd size.

The drought affected not only water supplies, but also ranchers’ ability to feed their livestock. They usually send their herds to eat the grass that grows on the land, but they can grow grain in the summer and supplement their cattle with store-bought fodder in the winter. In 2015, 71% of ranchers drove cattle off pastures due to lack of feed, forcing them to buy more expensive feed.

Darren Scott, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management’s New Mexico office, says drought conditions tend to favor crops that cattle may not eat, “The bland plant like creosote is a long-lived shrub that survives even under exceptional drought conditions.”

Last year, the Hopi government called on ranchers to reduce or eliminate their cattle herds because of the drought. The Land Management and Forest Service are also urging licensed ranchers to reduce herd sizes during periods of drought. “Usually ranchers make the decision to reduce the herd size themselves,” Scott said. “Many ranchers in New Mexico’s BLM Land have already reduced herd sizes due to the drought in recent years and are simply not restocking.”

Source: Guardian

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