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Grazing season ends on the preserve

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By The Staff

The big rigs rolled slowly out of the Valle Grande a couple of weeks ago, each loaded with 48,000 pounds of healthy, live cargo, marking the end of the 2008 grazing season at the Valles Grande National Preserve.

“This year’s steer operation included the largest number of livestock since the government’s purchase and with this opportunity also came some challenges,” said Dennis Trujillo, the preserve manager, summing up the summer.

The cattle grazing program, evolving from past practices on the preserve, was determined by competitive bid again this year.

Gary Morton of Las Vegas, N.M., and his partner Cody Lewis of Claredon, Texas, submitted the winning proposal.

After consultation with staff and resources evaluation on the preserve, it was decided that conditions were favorable to stock cattle up to the conservative limits set in the existing environmental assessment.

One does not just turn loose a bunch of cattle on the Valles Caldera, an 89,000-acre piece of federal land, managed independently by the Valles Caldera Trust.

Extensive studies of forage availability linked to the number of elk and cattle must first be done, since both species eat the same type of plants. One elk will consume roughly the same amount of forage as a yearling steer or heifer.

The range readiness studies involve sampling many test plots for plant type and amount to determine the condition of the range as well as characterizing the elk population on the preserve, by number, gender and age.

The forage allocated for elk and cattle use is always kept below 40 percent of that available, allowing 60 percent of the forage to remain for the future.

The Morton and Lewis partnership delivered 1,960 yearling steers in the first week of June. The grass was good – each steer gained approximately 300 pounds gross over the 120 days they lived on the preserve.

There were at least three fulltime cowboys tending the cattle every day in addition to five-day workers used on an as-needed basis. The full timers were Morton, Lewis, and BJ Browning. Extra help was provided by Gary’s grandsons Caleb and Connor and BJ’s little brother Brady Bill.

This was all done on horseback the old-fashioned way – horses can go places and do things with cows that motorized vehicles cannot do and with much less impact on the natural resource.

Grazing by domestic livestock has occurred on the preserve since the late 1700s, according to historical accounts. At first it was sheep, up to about 100,000 in the early 1900s. In the 1950s cattle replaced sheep due to market conditions, with greater than 10,000 sometimes being grazed on the grasslands that are now in the preserve.

The previous owners of the ranch, the Dunigan family, reduced the number of cattle and started the practice of rotational grazing and riparian area protection, protecting the rivers, streams and other wetlands.

The preserve has tried a number of interim grazing programs, in keeping with its legislative mandate to operate as “a working ranch,” and to gain knowledge about resources and capacity. Cattle grazing on the preserve started in 2002/03 with a modest emergency drought relief program for local ranchers.

In 2003/04, a replacement heifer project was undertaken using an open/lottery system of allotment. The program allowed ranchers to graze on the preserve and breed their soon-to-be cows to high quality bulls specially chosen for calving ease.

A conservation-based competition was used in 2004/05. This program allowed ranchers to rest and make improvements on their home lands while their cattle grazed and were cared for on the preserve. New Mexico State University furnished steers in 2006 for a grazing research program.

All of these early programs were ecologically sustainable but were at a net cost to the preserve.

A different approach to cattle grazing was tried in 2007 and 2008. The 2007 program was open to applicants under a request for proposal solicitation.

The proposals were judged on specified criteria. The high-scoring proposal came from a private operator who ran 500 yearlings and provided full care.

Under last year’s grazing plan, the Valles Caldera Trust’s staff managed the cattle in an intensive pasture rotation. This approach made a little money for the preserve and was tried again this year but on a larger scale.

It now appears that this year’s program, because of the large herd size and the grazing plan, will be the most financially rewarding to the preserve of any conducted so far.

“We learned a great deal based on this year’s operation.” Trujillo said. “Hopefully, we can apply what we have learned and adapt to better accommodate all the programs and activities, such as fishing and hunting, while at the same time protecting and enhancing all of our resource.”

The cattle are now in a feedlot in Texas getting even fatter.