NMSU-led grazing partnership picked for the preserve

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Valles Caldera Trust has chosen a diversified breeding stock program this year for its summer grazing season on the national preserve.

“It creates an enterprise that can dramatically improve the production of livestock for higher elevation ranching, promote economic development in the region and allows the Preserve to further enhance the self-sustaining, environmental and cultural goals set by the Valles Caldera Preservation Act,” said the Trust’s Executive Director Gary Bratcher in an announcement Tuesday.

From the five proposals submitted, Bratcher selected a bid by New Mexico State University, Jemez Pueblo and The New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association (NMBCPA).

The announcement noted that NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station in Tucumcari, N.M. has managed and housed a seedstock performance testing facility in cooperation with the NMBCPA for 48 years.

Jemez Pueblo and NMSU have both been previous participants in the grazing program and have had an ongoing relationship over the years.

The grazing plan calls for providing cow-calf pairs, virgin bulls and replacement heifers in the 2009 program.

“We’re truly looking to provide a unique system on the preserve and make it more than a place to lease out and run cows,” said Manny Encinias, the director of NMSU’s station in Tucumcari.

He said the relationship with Jemez and other local cattlegrowers, depending on the numbers allowed by range conditions, would make it possible to show what a typical operation can accomplish by working in cooperation with others.

“We can use their cattle as a demonstration herd, as far as selecting higher quality bulls and herd health protocols,” he said, noting that there is a market demand for progressive genetics for high altitude health and performance.

Bratcher, who has made revenue enhancement at the preserve a high priority, was particularly pleased about the potential income from the proposal, which would increase about 30 percent per head over next year, although the total amount will vary depending on a complicated livestock formula based on “animal units per month.”

“I don’t have a final number for this year,” Bratcher said in a telephone call from preserve headquarters in Jemez Springs Tuesday. “Last year, we had 1,960 yearlings, which is about 1,400 animal units and they brought in $58,000, he said.

He estimated that this year, with the same animal unit equivalent, the winning bid would bring in $73,000.

That was the second highest bid. The highest bid, which was not selected, had a potential to bring in about $94,000 for the four months, he said.

Range condition measurements this month, particularly moisture and the amount of forage available, will determine the maximum herd size and thus the total revenue for the season.

Last month Bratcher signed off on an environmental assessment that reserved 80 percent of the forage at the Valles Caldera National Preserve for the wildlife and ecosystem with the remainder apportioned to other uses including domestic livestock grazing.

In an announcement at the time, he said this formula provided the best model for “optimizing the generation of income based on existing market conditions, to the extent that it does not unreasonably diminish the long term scenic and natural values of the area, or the multiple use and sustained yield capability of the land.”

In award announcement, Encinias said, “The intent is to incorporate a grazing system which minimizes the use of grazing resources along riparian areas (the rivers and streams) and emphasizes the use of the resources away from the perennial waterways.”

Caldera Action, a nonprofit watchdog of the preserve, responded in a statement of concerns on Wednesday, charging that such claims are made each year but have not been fulfilled in the past.

“Last year water quality and the fishing program suffered from cattle trampling and polluting the Jemez River, and this year we can expect exactly the same unless they specify how they plan to protect the watershed, the most valuable resource on our preserve,” Tom Ribe, the organization’s president, said in a statement.

“We know the pastures; we know where there’s upland water, spring-fed waters,” Encinias said, based on having been involved with aspects of the grazing programs over the last several years.

“We recognize the significant interest that is put on the riparian areas in the valles,” he said. “We don’t exclude the possibility of some use, but we plan to try to use upland and fenced areas, where we don’t have to spend so much time keeping cattle off the bottom.”

The grazing program began in 2002 as an interim strategy, with a cow-calf program to which to which replacement heifers were added in 2003.

In 2004 replacement heifers continued and the preserve began a conservation stewardship program that gave relief to local ranchers during a dry spell in 2004 and 2005.

In 2006, when the grazing program had to be cancelled because of the severity of the drought, environmentalists were surprised to discover 200 head of cows grazing on the preserve.

In response to questions raised at the time, the Trust issued a news release saying that they had reached an agreement with NMSU for a modest summer research program with up to 200 steers for up to 100 days, to improve growth efficiency.

Bratcher said Encinias’ experience at the preserve was one of the strengths of his proposal.

“Manny has worked out here and he has always wanted to put together a high altitude breed stock,” Bratcher said.

Encinias said he expected to have up to three people working with the cattle, in a system that would not require as much labor as some previous plans.

“We’re hoping we can have cattle there June 1,” he said.