New Mexico is home to many different types of agricultural resources, which may come as a surprise to those who know New Mexico as a desert or a dry climate. New Mexico has a weathered history of experiencing droughts. Droughts are defined as an extended period (month or year) in which an area experiences a shortage of annual precipitation, which in turn results in a depletion of surface and/or ground water. This results in plants and animals not getting proper nutrients to survive.
New Mexico experienced a widespread drought only a decade ago, which the New York Times referred to as an “extreme five year drought.” Although the Department of Agriculture states that droughts are a rare occurrence they have grown to be considered the “new normal.” Ranches and farms have been greatly affected by droughts, which have raised production costs above marginal profits resulting in cases of debt and foreclosure.
Many New Mexican ranches have been experiencing extreme jumps in hay prices. Rancher Vern L. Wood told me that in the last two years he has seen grass hay prices rise from about $50 a ton to $300 a ton. Price increases significantly affect ranches when purchasing 200 half-ton bales of hay for the winter season. For the past two years ranchers have been hoping to make their money back during the spring and summer seasons. They hope that they will no longer have to purchase large quantities of grass hay, because there will be enough moisture to grow adequate grass to feed their livestock. Although, for the past two years Mr. Wood says that he has had to continue occasionally feeding hay into the late summer months to keep his cattle healthy. He hopes that his livestock can scrounge enough grass to stay alive.
Mr. Wood normally puts out various protein supplements that keep his cattle healthy, but there has been a large increase in demand for these commodities as well. So, many times cattle will go weeks without proper nutrition, which results in weight loss, and ultimately lower resale value of livestock. Many ranchers are not making sufficient profits to purchase hay and supplements for their livestock. Mr. Wood says that after many months of strain he came across one of his elderly neighbors Pete Muller, who is 95, and a native New Mexican rancher, burning the prickly points off of cacti in his fields for the cattle to eat. This idea of burning cactus is a practice that is not new to the Southwest, but has been practiced since the early 1900s and was very common during the thirties when the region was experiencing the Dust Bowl.
Mr. Wood says that the idea has stayed the same but the practice has changed. Originally ranchers would cut down their cacti and stack them in large piles and then set them on fire. Now with propane tanks Mr. Wood can walk around and burn cactus out in the field. He says that although this process is much faster he still cannot burn the cactus fast enough to feed his herd. Even with his herd feeding off of cactus Mr. Wood continues to buy protein supplements for them. Although the cactus does contain many nutritious attributes, he fears that it does not contain everything they need.
New Mexican ranchers have yet to see the end of hard times and have not even begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Their hardships may continue because of lack of precipitation, but they have caught one small break with the cacti, which many originally saw as a nuisance. Mr. Wood says that he thought he might start his own new fad of Cactus-Fed Beef, hoping that it may put a positive spin on the drought. So the next time you eat a burger, ask yourself, am I eating cactus?
-Posted by Seth