By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Reductions in cattle herds have followed the drought in Quay County, and even as normal rainfall seems to have returned for at least the summer, herds are down further, and they aren’t likely to grow this year.
Local ranchers say that while rebuilding of herds always takes time, they are hesitant to begin the rebuilding process based on one good year after 13 years of subnormal rainfall. One good year does not end the drought, they say.
Last summer, Quay County Assessor’s office figures showed that Quay County’s herds had decreased by about a third since 2009.
In the most recent cattle count, recorded June 10, the Quay County Assessor’s office showed 31,098 head in the county. In October, the assessor reported 32,767 head, County Assessor Janie Hoffman said.
On July 3, 2012, the total was 35,869. Three years ago, in July 2011, the count was 41,133.
Between 2009 and the June 10 report, Quay County ranches reduced their cattle herds by more than one third, according to assessor’s data.
From the 2009 level of 46,844 head, the June 10 cattle count shrunk by 33.6 percent. About two-thirds of that reduction occurred between the first quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.
Recent spikes in beef prices don’t offer the incentive to accelerate increases in herd sizes, either, the ranchers said. High beef prices also increase the price of calving heifers, and in the face of uncertainty about drought conditions, ranchers aren’t willing to pay premium prices for breeding stock, they say.
“My theory is wait and make sure,” said rancher Bill Humphries. It is better, he said, to see what the fall and winter will bring in terms of rain and snow, and to put off any decisions on growing herds until next year. Humphries said he would rather wait until beef prices stabilize and with them, the cost of breeding stock, before deciding to rebuild his herds.
Drought has affected the entire Midwest, he pointed out, and so he is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. He may wait until winter 2015 to make decisions on expanding his herd.
Even then, he said, herds must build slowly, since it takes two years to grow calves into beef cattle.
Phil Bidegain, a manager of the T-4 cattle ranch that occupies parts of three counties, including Quay, Guadalupe and San Miguel counties, agreed with Humphries. Faced with a choice of buying cattle outright to increase a herd or “growing them yourself,” he said, he tends to favor the slower choice of raising his own under current conditions, rather than paying premium prices for breeding cattle
Tom Sidwell, a Quay Valley rancher, said he plans to start increasing his cattle count gradually, starting this year, but using his own breeding stock rather than buying more cattle. He said he plans to keep his current cattle and not reduce the herd this year.
Rebuilding, he agreed, “is a slow process.”
Joe Culbertson, owner of the Culbertson Ranch near Nara Visa, said he has plenty of cattle to support without considering additions, and he has no plans to add to his herds.
“Climatologists say that good years happen once in a while even during droughts,” he said, so he’s being cautious.
He said he is happy to see more green in the grass this summer, “and I hope it continues,”
Greg Gudgell, manager of the Dan Trigg-Singleton Ranch near Logan, said that while things are looking encouraging, he is also taking a wait-and-see attitude.
That attitude among the ranchers is also encouraging to Leonard Lauriault, superintendent of the New Mexico State University Agriculture Experiment Station in Tucumcari and a forage agronomist, specializing in feed crops, by education.
Drought-damaged grasses need a few seasons to reestablish deep roots that will help retain moisture. That, he said, means that grazing should be restricted on most fields this year, anyway.
Driving around Quay County fields, however, Lauriault has seen some healthy fields of forage crops, and many that have been over-grazed, he said.
Tall crops, he said, indicate deep roots. Taller crops, he said, also tend to keep winter snow on the ground to soak into the soil, rather than be blown away before it can melt and nourish the soil.
Sidwell uses a ranching method that moves cattle around to different fields, which allows some fields to recover from grazing before they’re used again, he said last year.
Humphries, recognizing that the ranges need some recovery time, said that he, too, is rotating fields to allow grasslands to recover.