A Drought So Severe, Even Cacti Can't Survive
Mike Corn is a lifelong rancher who's family has been in the Roswell, N.M. area for more than 100 years. The current drought is the worst he's ever seen.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
August 14, 2012

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Bull riders prepare to ride at a rodeo in Roswell, N.M.
ROSWELL, N.M. -- The historic nationwide drought has resulted in disaster declarations for more than half the counties in America. In the Southwest, parts of New Mexico and the Texas panhandle are in the worst shape.

Few feel the effects of the drought more strongly than cattle ranchers.

At the Cowboy Cafe in Roswell, N.M., Saturday morning breakfasts are a ritual for local retired ranchers. They sit at a roundtable scarfing eggs, hash browns and of course, steak. It's here where men like John Burson air a multitude of grievances.

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting meatless Mondays where they're not gonna eat any meat," he said. "This is cattle country and dairy country and it kinda pisses us off."

But worse than vegetarian diets is the stubborn drought that's now in its second year. It's the worst dry spell in 50 years. Ray Vallez, a local dairy farmer, said it's affecting everyone in agriculture.

"The drought is affecting us big time," he said. "This is a total wreck."

On July's rainfall map, southeast New Mexico looks like a bad sunburn. The region is colored in beige and red, meaning there's been little to no precipitation.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Cattle and sheep on dry range land just outside Roswell, N.M.

Off state Highway 246 just outside Roswell, rancher Mike Corn stares down the drought from the wheel of his truck. He's embarrassed to admit, this is his land. It's a long stretch of arid plain, all grey and mossy, with the nutritional equivalent of cardboard. Even the hardy desert cholla plant perished in this weather. It's a bad sign when even the cacti can't survive.

"We need a really good soaking rain," Corn said. "We need one of those rains that comes in here, that rains three days in a row and the water never runs down the hill."

Driving down one of those hills along the range, a herd of sheep and cattle cried up at a sky dotted with heavy clouds. They only tease the animals, providing a little shade but no moisture.

In the absence of grass, Corn's livestock survives off supplemental feed. Feed prices have doubled lately, also thanks to the drought.

Corn is almost at the point where he can no longer afford to keep his animals. If no rain falls in the next week he'll have to sell them. All of them.

"Do you have a pet cat or a pet dog?" Corn asked. "Do you have anything that you're attached to and you don't want to get rid of? I've never had to make this kind of a decision. It's like pulling my heart out."

Lately the weather patterns in New Mexico have not been kind to ranchers according to Dave DuBois, the state climatologist.

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How does the Southwest cope with oppressive heat?

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A young boy takes off his hat during the Pledge of Allegiance at a rodeo in Roswell, N.M.

"We've been having above-normal average temperature for a number of months now," he said. "If you look at it in longer term with drought, the past two years have been the warmest on our records."

Statewide the average temperature rose a little more than 3 degrees in the first half of this year.

Despite the hard times, most ranchers are unlikely to quit all together. For Mike Corn, raising cattle is more of a lifestyle than reliable source of income. Like many other ranchers nearby he and his wife have city jobs that pay the bills.

"Times have changed, it doesn't rain like it used to," he said "I'm a firm believer that everything is cyclical and that it'll come back around. It may be on a 100 year cycle or a 50 year cycle … but I just hope I'm here when it starts coming."

One Roswell rancher put it this way: 'It's a wonderful way of life, but it's a hard way to make a living.'