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How Ranchers Are Getting by With Less Water Across the West

Most ranches depend on rain to ensure cattle have enough to eat, but arid conditions amplified by drought across much of the West means that ranchers are employing best practices to use water as efficiently as possible, writes New Mexico rancher Cassidy Johnston.

Written by Cassidy Johnston Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Mike Rosengrants feeds his cattle at his ranch in Campo, Colorado, in 2014. Drought across the West this year is making it tough for ranchers and farmers.RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In the summer, all we talk about is rain. Walk into a diner or a barn, or just run into someone at the store, and the first question anyone asks – even before, “How are you?” – is, “Did you get any rain?” It’s the same in New Mexico as in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and California. Everyone is concerned because, as ranchers, we know the health of our cattle depends on the amount of water that falls out of the sky. And this year, it hasn’t been a lot.

Much of the American West is classified as either semi-arid or desert, so water is our most precious resource. We need to use water efficiently to protect what little we have in this climate, especially in drought years. Most grazing pastures are not irrigated, so we rely heavily upon rainwater to replenish the grasses our cattle eat and the springs, streams, ponds and wells where they drink.

Ranchers continually have to ask themselves: Do we have enough water? What is the best way to bring water to our cattle? How can we improve our water systems to preserve more natural resources?

The answers to these questions have helped ranchers come up with some best practices to endure in tough climates.

Ranches that depend on dirt tanks filled by rainwater need to haul water to the pastures for cattle to drink. However, no amount of drinking water makes up for the lack of rain. While cattle usually graze grass in the summer, heat and drought have decreased forage growth. Some ranchers are supplementing their cattle’s diets with hay, while others are selling cattle to prevent damaging their rangelands with overgrazing.

Others may be doing fine this year because they routinely understock their ranches in anticipation of dry years like this. But if drought continues, even that isn’t a guarantee. In areas that have been drought-stricken for longer periods, ranches are either going out of business or hanging on by a thread, praying for rain that may never fall.

I feel fortunate to work on a ranch with an excellent water infrastructure. Since most ranches in our area have little to no surface water, we use a complex system of solar-powered pumps, tanks, lines and drinkers (water troughs) to deliver water over tens of thousands of acres to the cattle on our ranch.

We rely on our water system to keep the cattle hydrated, so we check it every day and repair broken water lines as soon as possible. Earlier this month, our ranch got new water tanks and drinkers because some of our pastures didn’t have enough places for the cattle to water to ensure the whole pasture is utilized properly, which is especially important in dry years.

In such a dry climate, strategic water use and grazing on our ranch keeps our rangelands healthy for our cattle and the wildlife that live here. In drier, drought-prone parts of the West, some ranchers will conserve resources by stocking their ranches at 50–70 percent carrying capacity with breeding cows and calves, the foundation of many ranches. This allows them to stock the rest of their ranch with cattle that can be sold during a drought to leave more resources for the breeding cows and calves. Rotational grazing – regularly moving cattle to fresh pastures – prevents cattle from overgrazing, which protects the health of the soil and increases resilience to drought.

Ranchers use these measures and more to conserve water because we know we could not raise healthy cattle without it.

Cattle ranchers are proud stewards of the land, and we take that job seriously. We know that if we do not manage resources like water efficiently on our rangelands, we will no longer be able to raise cattle and conserve the rangelands we love. Sustainable practices allow ranchers to produce food while protecting the resources we all share. We are constantly striving to improve how we use water for the good of our cattle, our environment and the next generation.

This commentary was produced as a result of a partnership with Sustainable Brands. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of Water Deeply or Sustainable Brands.

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