Understanding the drought from a rancher’s perspective

At Marfa’s first in-person art event since the beginning of the pandemic, the Marfa Invitational, I was happy to see familiar faces behind masks that I hadn’t seen in quite a while. Decidedly more neatly pressed than most of the crowd, Ft. Davis rancher Bobby McKnight was a welcome, friendly sight.

We fell into a conversation about the state of our current drought. The thing that stuck with me was that he said, “We haven’t had enough rain to grow grass for three years.”

That deeply shocked me. Complaining about the amount of dust in my house going up every year, while simultaneously ignoring it and refusing to clean until we get some rain, may have a direct correlation, however it doesn’t strike at my heart the way his statement did.

After we spoke and he moved on, I watched the art goers walking past the booths headed to the opening reception –– many here via private jets, others from all over the country –– thinking that very few besides the ranchers present probably had much of an idea, if any, the dire state of our grasslands, cattle and wildlife due to the extraordinary drought we are experiencing.

I can turn on a hose or hook up a sprinkler for my yard, however without rain for grass there’s no way to graze cattle. Without ranching, our communities lose their undergirding, vitality, long history of animal husbandry and a distinct hard-won lifestyle like no other –– one that also preserves the visual resource that we call home.

After a few days of not being able to shake the shock of no grass, I called Bobby to ask more questions, and he kindly walked me through cattle raising 101. Recently while walking my dogs on Pinto Canyon Road, the Eppenauer cattle, with many calves, were crowding around piles of what looked like bright green grass. Bobby said that was most likely alfalfa hay, a supplement, since there’s too little grazing fodder to sustain the herd right now.

This is often the point where a decision has to be made whether to reduce the herd –– generally at a financial loss –– or wait for rain, watching the clock all while knowing “it’s all a matter of timing,” according to Bobby.  He added, “If you see two ranchers talking, they’re talking about rain.”

I’ve written about rattlesnakes and plants out here that lacerate when touched, however, Bobby took the cake with his story of screw-worm flies, commonly called screw-worms, feeding on the live flesh of cattle.

First a word of caution, don’t look up photos of the damage these flies wreck. Any rancher with a memory of the ravages of screw-worm infestations –– gaining purchase on the tiniest of wounds or around a newborn calf’s belly button, the killing of full-grown cattle and decimating the herd –– will breed so the calves have been branded, “peel and heal” before the summer rains and outpace the flies.

Even though screw-worms have been eradicated in this part of the world due to the sterile flies dropped on ranchland with affected herds, Bobby said, the sadness still evident in his voice, screw-worms would, “wipe out the herd and break us all.”

The trauma of watching cattle eaten alive lingers, and for good reason. The cattle at the Dixon Ranch are bred to calve in the fall after the anticipated rains according to Robert Potts, who added, “Every rancher does what makes best sense individually.”

No matter what time of year calves are born they need to both nurse and have grass available to graze to be at their healthiest. At Dixon they have reduced the herd and rotated grazing pastures in hopes of having enough grass for next year. “It’s really tough. It makes it really, really hard.”

“It’s a dozen years with not enough rain,” he added. “It’s really profound stress.” When this happens, ranchers sell cattle due to the drought –– the prices are down with so many selling at once –– which translates to financial loss. Clearly every rancher needs and deserves sympathy right now. “Wildlife is suffering, no question,” adds Robert. “The number of birds and mule deer are down.”

He hasn’t seen the numbers for pronghorn yet, however he guesses the same will be true for them. “Surface water, where it exists, has been going away the last couple years,” he said. “The enemy is bare ground.”

Recently Marfa Group –– a Facebook group for people who live in Marfa –– had a post asking if other people’s house pets and community cats were disappearing. An animal control officer told me years ago that this happens when drought drives coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls and other thirsty predators into the city limits in an effort to survive.

Several years ago, there was a bobcat sitting at the four-way stop at 2 a.m. A coyote set up a feeding station behind the big Stripes and did the heavy lifting for a couple weeks to reduce the number of feral cats that I was trapping to spay and neuter. It all adds up, it’s all telling.

For Bobby, “Rains come July, August and September, I used to set my watch by it,” and yet for “10 to 12 years it’s been erratic and inconsistent. The fifties drought shut everybody down, everything changed. It was one for the ages.”

During WWII, agriculture, sheep and goat ranching was thriving. “Our tri-county area was the world’s largest producer of mohair and wool,” he said.

All those warehouses along the railroad that have been repurposed as art exhibition spaces, some still with faint wool and mohair sign lettering referencing the booming industry of the past, held stores of riches. With that drought, the “scale of liquidation” was devastating, and “the last goat guy out here gave up in the seventies.”

Ranchers cope with drought by reducing their herds, rotating grazing pastures and trying to spare enough grass to ensure enough for the following year. This year, even if rains do come, Bobby suggests he will wait and see if enough grass comes back or if having more cattle would be too soon for the range to recover. The road ahead looks to the skies for rain and relief for our ranchers and their herds, our local treasures.