Water, fuel, whiskey important to farmers

Remember that song, “toe bone connected to the foot bone, connected to the ankle bone….?”

Agriculturists for sure know the “words to that song.”

Water is the first bone. Gotta have it. Large sections of our country, where water from the sky seldom falls, depend on irrigation water — either from rivers and lakes (snowmelt) or wells. The water (from whatever source) helps the food and fiber crops grow, the ones of most interest to livestock growers being corn and alfalfa hay.

Much of corn production has been co-opted the past few years by ethanol. Livestock producers historically have depended on corn for feed for their animals. Some use ethanol production byproducts, but they come with their own set of problems. Plus corn has many other uses. Actually, of 10,000 items in a typical grocery store, at least 2,500 use corn in some form during production and/or processing.

Don’t forget whiskey. One winter my dad had a guy hired to tend to the camp in the mountains. When he asked for a grocery list, the guy handed over a paper with one word written on it — whiskey. That’s an important connection.

Now we move on to consideration of alfalfa hay, a high water-use crop because it has a long growing season, a deep root system and dense vegetation. The main requirement is water, although other factors matter. It needs about three acre feet (36 inches) per season.

In southern New Mexico this year the local irrigation district allocated 4 inches, and water delivery shut down in early July. That’s right — 4 inches. Those who had wells supplemented with them, but they noticed the water table went down.

In California, hay is selling for not less than $300 per ton, about $80 more than this time last year.

They have another dilemma. California is home to many dairies, and they need alfalfa for their cows. Their main problem is a bit different — competition for the limited supply of hay from foreign buyers. A Bloomberg News story reported this month that it is now cheaper to ship hay from California’s Imperial Valley to China than it is to transport it to dairies in the San Joaquin Valley. So we mustn’t forget fuel’s connection in all this craziness.

Milk prices also have increased, which is keeping dairy farmers solvent. That same phenomenon is happening with feeder and fed cattle.

Last week’s market report had 600-pound steers bringing $119 to $126 per pound. Forty years ago a set of steers weighing 600 pounds sold for $34.50 per pound. The fed market futures say steers selling this October are expected to bring about $134 per pound.

So I have a plan. How about we all plant corn in our back yards and use our kitchen sink water to grow it? Farmers Markets would work great at harvest time.

Alfalfa might be a bit more difficult because it needs to be baled and hauled, but I bet our bright young people could figure out the connections we need.