Rains flood parts of Catron County

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In June, in Catron County, the terrain — usually showing grass greening up — was still dead brown, and there was little to no vegetation remaining on the rangeland that once supplied cattle with summer feed. The drought has hit various regions of New Mexico hard in the last two to three years, and one of the hardest hit areas has been Catron County. Many ranchers have sold down or sold off their herds due to lack of adequate summer range feed for their cattle, and the rising costs of feed to supplement that loss.

Driving through Catron County today, travelers may think they are in another part of the country altogether. Summer rains began falling in early July, and have continued to pour over various areas of the county for the last month.

“This is the first time in a long time I have seen the rains start in July,” Johnny Hand, long time cattle rancher near Datil said. “These rains usually don’t start until August, and in the last several years, they really never came at all.”

The McKinley family saw the more damaging effects of the rain when rains washed out a dam and the road to their headquarters in a few hours last Saturday night. Phil and Tara McKinley, along with their three sons, had been in Quemado for events related to the all-school reunion, when they got the call from Phil’s dad, Bobby “Buggar” after he got home around 6, that they had gotten about 3 inches of rain on part of the ranch, water was running and they should get home before the road washed out. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite make it. The McKinleys were finally able to return home at about 3 a.m. Sunday.

“I could see my house from the truck, but couldn’t quite get to it!” Tara said. “When we got near the house at about 9, the water had broken the dam and was running too big to cross — by vehicle or on foot.”

The flood took out the dam, the main road to the ranch headquarters and some of the roping arena fence.

“I was so worried about our hogs,” Tara said. “But Phil crossed the water on foot a little after midnight and confirmed that the hogs were still there. Thankfully the running water took a different direction.”

Phil and Tara recall the dam washing away once before, right after they moved back to the ranch 18 years ago. They haven’t seen rains like that since. The dam was rebuilt after that flood, and made longer to try to prevent future washouts.

“When you consider it, three inches of rain is a lot of water in a short period of time,” Tara said. “One inch of rain in a square mile is over 17 million gallons of water. That’s a lot of water.”

Phil said the rain gauge at their house showed about an inch and a half of rain from that evening and night, but just 4miles away at Bobby’s house, the gauge had three and a half inches.

Mr. Hand came to Catron County in the 1950s, and went to work on the Ake Cattle Ranch south and east of Datil. There was a severe drought in effect then, known for years as the worst drought in recent history.

“It is worse now than it was then,” Hand said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Hand said this is the first drought in which he has seen grass completely die, leaving nothing but dirt. There has been another added problem of a worm that has killed off some of the native grass.

Susann Mikkelson/El Defensor Chieftain: Overflow from Largo Creek floods the right of way and pasture and buries the easement fence on Highway 32, just west of Quemado. Some areas around Quemado have reported as much as 8 to 10 inches of rain since July 1.

The St. Augustin plains, according to Hand, are known for getting dry, but never has it lost so much of its vegetation completely.

Hand believes it will take two to three years of continued rainfall and winter snow to get the land back to normal. He said that it is too early to tell whether or not the drought has really broken.

“The worst thing we face now may be the cost to restock (the ranch),” said Hand. “The bright spot, if there is one, is that (cattle) prices have stayed good during this drought.”

That is unusual, since when there is a drought, the market is usually flooded with supply and it kills the market. Hand said the drought in the 1950s caused thousands of ranchers from New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado and even Kansas to sell off their herds and go out of business.

For some reason, some ranchers seemed to hold out a little longer this time. Still, many have sold down or sold out their herds.

“We started cutting back about three years ago,” Hand said. “We are running about half the head or less than what this land would usually run.”

Hand said some ranchers held onto their herds a little too long, he thought, and it hurt the land.

The fact that cattle prices have remained high will hurt when ranchers start to rebuild their herds, in addition to facing fall feed and supplement costs. Still, the rains have helped tremendously for next year, as long as the rains continue, and the country has a good, wet winter. There is hope that the ranching industry in Catron County can begin to rebound as early as next year, if the drought is truly broken.

“The grass starts to come back once it starts raining,” Hand said. “We received four and three-quarter inches in July and early August.”

Phil McKinley agrees that it is a “wait and see” situation right now. It is safe to say all ranchers in the region are still hoping for more rain, even if it washes out the roads.