By Karen Ray
©Copyright 2015 Hatch Valley Sentinel
August 28, 2015

Michael Gonzalez and tractor operator Salome work to hustle large 14 bale bundles of alfalfa hay out of the field under the threat of a storm. They stopped for a quick visit north of Las Cruces as the thunderheads built.

Welcome to late summer in southern New Mexico.

Gonzalez said this was their fifth cut, “We should get a couple more cuts for a total of seven.” He works for Jeff Flores, of New Mexico Hay and Livestock Company, LLC in Las Cruces.

Flores specializes in hay and forage crops, specifically two strand alfalfa bales for the equine industry. “Our primary crop is alfalfa and our secondary crops are a variety of cereal grain crops and summer grasses,” he said. “Our spring crops are beardless wheat and triticale and then our summer crops are Sudan grass and alfalfa grass mix.” Alfalfa production accounts for 11,000 acres of the crop mix in the district, according to James Narvaez, EBID water master and irrigation system director.

When asked about the uniquely tight packing of the bale bundles, he explained, “That machine is the only one in the valley. It’s called an Arcusin C14 Multi Pack and it’s actually imported from Spain.” He said the majority of his customers are in New Mexico and Texas, and most of his hay is shipped out of the Mesilla Valley. “The only way that can happen,” he said, “is by utilizing technology such as this machine that allows us to bundle small bales into secure bundles of fourteen so that they can be loaded onto semis.” This method reduces wasted space because the bundles are so compact.

Utilizing new technology is a common thread among producers of many different crops in the region. Farmers are finding ways of operating their businesses better and more efficiently with oftentimes fewer resources because of the water situation. Flores is a fourth generation farmer and says this is exactly what he has had to do. “My family originally is from Hatch, and when I started farming here in the Mesilla Valley I was farming pretty close to 600 acres of a variety of rotational crops,” he said. “When the drought started about ten years ago I started changing my operation. On the farm side that meant less volume, more quality products and niche markets to maximize our return on investment.” In this transition process he cut the size of his operation down from 600 acres to about 200, as well as switching about halfthe operation over to cattle ranching.

Flores and his son also run a cow calf operation consisting of about 500 head of Corriente and beef cattle. In addition they also do custom work, purchasing alfalfa from other growers.

Growing up in Hatch, he recalls, “The majority of the crops were green chile and cotton, very little alfalfa. The water was so cheap then that we could grow a lot of vegetables. Cotton was just a rotation crop. When the dairies started growing in this area that’s when a lot of farmers started switching over to forage and corn for silage; it became a bigger part of their operation.”

Today, his active stewardship of tight surface water supplies has resulted in a higher degree of efficiency in his operation. Although he has cut down acreage, Flores has found profitable niche markets that have helped him to not just weather the drought but thrive.

Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) has proactively sought ways to utilize storm water, and Flores is just one of many farmers in the district who have “caught the vision” and done the same thing with their crops.

“I make sure that the acreage that I do keep has good wells,” he says. “Believe it not, what I’ve done on the farm side to manage water is on some idle fields around the valley I’ve gone in and planted Sudan grass, put one irrigation down and utilized the rains to get one huge cut, and then left it dormant.” In this way Flores has, “used a small amount of irrigation water but utilized Mother Nature to help with some of the forage crops, especially for the ranches.”

Dr. Phil King, hydrology consultant for EBID, has examined the weather patterns and says that we may see increased moisture well into September this year as the monsoon season continues. The additional water is monitored closely using EBID’s state of the art technological tools and used in a variety of ways by the district’s hydrologists and area farmers to help maximize the health of the system. However, we are not out of the dry stretch yet. King cautions, “We have a bit of a hole to dig out of and this will take multiple years.”

Flores has collaborative arrangements with some farmers with small pecan trees. He said that when they flood irrigate, “a lot of them have native grass that comes up. I’ve worked out agreements where I go in and harvest that from in between the rows. Kind of offsets costs for my cattle operation, but also it’s money that goes back to those farmers to offset their water costs.” He said there are farmers in the north valley who have successfully inter-planted forage between the pecan rows for years and done very well. “I think these last four years that we’ve dealt with the drought and the water situation is our new reality,” Flores said.

“I think for those of us in the forage industry we better become a lot more technologically savvy in terms of how efficient we are with our crops.” Another way in which he has adapted to utilize limited water resources is that “instead of tilling alfalfa after the third or fourth year, we inter-seed it with a grass mix to get one more crop out of it to cut down on working the soil. But at the same time that also helps us with the water because when you plant a new crop it takes so much water to get it established. We get a little more life out of our crops by inter-seeding it for alternative markets.”

As agricultural producers finish out 2015’s “60 Days of Water” growing season and begin planning for next year, many will be taking a fresh look at innovative ways to thrive in spite of the reduced water supply. EBID anticipates continued collaborative and inventive uses of technology and water stewardship measures in 2016 as it serves its members.

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