Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
JEMEZ PUEBLO - Last year, cattle producers at Jemez Pueblo nearly doubled the market price they earned for their steers by collectively grazing and managing livestock at the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
"There's strength in numbers," said Raymond Loretto, a veterinarian and Jemez Pueblo member whose family owns 30 cows. "By working together instead of managing our livestock individually, we were able to take better care of the herd, improve the weight and quality of our steers and sell all the cattle collectively to one single buyer at a much higher price. We're not going back to Valles Caldera this year, but given the benefits, we'll continue managing our cattle as a single herd on tribal land."
The community approach is so effective that Loretto is now working with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service to extend collective herd and range management to nine other pueblos in central and northern New Mexico.
"The drought has made it more difficult to raise cattle, and that's pulling us together as a community," Loretto said. "The collective approach is an effective model that can work well for other cattle producing tribes in New Mexico."
This spring, Loretto will help Extension specialists vaccinate up to 2,000 cattle and buffalo at 10 different tribes as part of a two-year, $200,000 project financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Edmund Gomez, executive director of NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project, based in Alcalde.
Under the program, the Extension Service will evaluate the individual training and assistance needs of participating pueblos and provide hands-on workshops to meet those needs. Apart from vaccinating livestock, specialists will teach producers about long-term healthcare, breeding, bull and heifer selection to improve herd quality, animal identification, ways to preserve rangeland and collective approaches to marketing.
"It's a comprehensive educational program that will help each pueblo improve the quality of their herds and reduce the risks faced by individual producers," Gomez said.
To participate, all individual producers at each pueblo must agree to work together to manage their cattle as a single herd, Gomez said.
"Some pueblos already run together, but individual producers are usually responsible for their own herd maintenance and most continue to work and sell their livestock individually," Gomez said. "They need to pull together as one herd because the health and quality of a single cow or bull can affect others. This program offers a holistic approach to improve the entire herd for the benefit of all."
Although no official count exists, Gomez estimates at least 5,000 cattle are raised at New Mexico's 19 pueblos, with herds ranging from just 150 at Cochiti Pueblo to 2,000 head at Isleta. For now, the program will target pueblos with smaller herds because the funding for vaccinations and educational outreach only covers up to 2,000 head of cattle, Gomez said.
If the pilot program is successful, it could extend to more New Mexico pueblos and serve as a model for tribes in other states, said Kerry Shropshire, co-owner of AgForce Inc., a Texas-based consultant that is partnering with Extension to administer the USDA grant.
The program kicked off Feb. 28 with a day-long workshop at Pojoaque Pueblo, which maintains about 40 buffalo. Loretto helped vaccinate the herd for diseases and parasites, and Extension specialists attached I.D. tags to help comply with federal identification regulations.
Gabriel Montoya, Pojoaque's bison program director, said this was the first full herd round-up in three years. "We corralled the whole herd for vaccinations and de-worming and we tagged all the animals," Montoya said. "We built a special corral to do it. From now on, we'll do this every year."
In April, the program will spread to more pueblos, said Joseph Garcia, an Extension agricultural agent. "The big thing is to improve herd health," Garcia said. "We want the pueblos to produce bigger and heavier steers that earn more at market."
Range specialists will also help tribes re-seed lands with drought-tolerant native grasses, and they'll show how to control noxious weeds, said Ursula Rosauer, an Extension natural resources agent.
Methods to deal with drought are particularly welcome at Jemez Pueblo, where in 2002 the tribe was forced to cut its herd by 50 percent, said Anthony Armijo, an assistant tribal administrator.
"We've had to limit each individual to just 10 head because the drought reduces grazing areas," Armijo said. "Given the limitation on herd numbers, we need to concentrate on animal quality to stay profitable. This program can help a lot with that."
Loretto said the program will help pull the community even closer together.
"To improve herd quality we have to view our operation as one long chain," Loretto said. "If there are weak links, the chain breaks down. If everybody is participating and all the links are strong, we'll get a much better end product."
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