By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
MORIARTY, N.M. (DTN) -- Jim Schwebach of Moriarty, N.M., remembers high traffic and accidents as he hauled hay to Albuquerque dairy farms on Route 66 before Interstate 40 was built.
"I don't miss Route 66," he said. "I hate I-40, but I don't miss the old road."
New Mexico doesn't have some of the ostentatious roadside art or tourist stops of other states along Route 66. The ever-changing landscape of plateaus and mountains largely keeps drivers entertained. The elevation on Route 66 rises to 7,200 feet at the Continental Divide.
Drivers staying true to Route 66 in New Mexico have to decide what era of the road they wish to consider true. The route takes different paths through Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Los Lunas.
During the height of the Depression, port-of-entry officials in New Mexico either harassed migrants at the border, or gas stations offered such travelers just enough free gasoline to ensure their next stop would be in Arizona. The road also was congested and a danger.
The Schwebach clan came to Moriarty in 1960 from western Kansas where the family had been winter-wheat farmers who suffered through drought in the 1950s. Don Schwebach had been looking for farm ground and found a place south of Moriarty. Eugene decided to move the whole family down to farm after coming out to check out the property. The kids, including younger brother Jim, soon followed.
Jim Schwebach and his son, Ryan, are partners on a 1,800-acre irrigated farm just south of Moriarty that grows alfalfa and corn silage for New Mexico's burgeoning dairy industry. A front plate on Ryan's pickup says "Alfalfa, New Mexico's No. 1 Crop." The state has about 220,000 acres of alfalfa and bales about 1 billion tons a year.
"All of our hay products are going to ranchers and dairymen around Clovis," Ryan Schwebach said. "Silage goes more to dairy farmers in the Rio Grande Valley on down to Roswell."
At 6,200 feet above sea level, nightly arid lows in the summer are borderline or too high to reach the dew point. That's a problem for any farmer trying to ensure enough moisture to bale the hay. Ryan Schwebach said the need to wait on dew from Mother Nature went away with a steamer he pulls ahead of the baler. The steamer is basically a boiler that generates enough steam for artificial dew. The steamer has changed practices on the farm.
"What I was doing with four balers I'm now doing with one," Ryan Schwebach said.
Moriarty is part of the Estancia Valley about 40 miles east of Albuquerque along Route 66/Interstate 40. There are several farms north and south of town that irrigate corn silage or alfalfa for the state's dairy industry.
The Estancia Valley basin is a "closed basin" that isn't allowing any new pumps for irrigation or commercial use because the region's water use is depleting the underlying aquifer, which relies on snow pack and rain runoff for a limited recharge. Agriculture uses the most water in the valley. A "wet acre" of cropland might cost $3,500.
The Schwebachs chop silage-specific corn while still green, but want moisture levels below 70%. Higher starch and lower moisture boost the pounds of milk per ton of silage.
"This will kick up the butter milk on a cow faster than anything," he said.
The general ratio is that a ton of alfalfa will run about three times the price of a ton of silage. The moisture levels and dry down are significantly less on the alfalfa, which also makes it more advantageous to haul longer distances.
Ryan credits growth of the dairy industry in eastern New Mexico over the last two decades for helping create more opportunities for feed crops. "I am dealing with the guy who is feeding this product," he said. "I'm not dealing with a broker or a co-op or anything else. That makes a difference. It gives you the ability to tweak your product and fine-tune it. That leads to more money for him and more money for me."
Ryan, who turns 39 at the end of August, also loves sitting in the cab of a chopper cutting silage.
"It is the biggest testosterone kick in the world," he said. "That thing will chop four tons a minute."
SCHWEBACH PRODUCE FARM THRIVES
Just up the road near the south end of Moriarty, Ryan's older cousin, Dean, runs Schwebach Farm with his dad. Don Schwebach bought the 160-acre farm in 1968, going his own way from his father and brother. Early on, Don grew a lot of barley, wheat, potatoes and pinto beans.
"Then my dad began to convert the farm to grow more produce and he started an open-air market here on the farm," said Dean Schwebach, who moved back to the farm in 2003 after working in Albuquerque as an accountant.
"My folks were ready to retire so we took over the farmer's market," he said. "My dad started a really good produce farm here for years and we are just trying to build on that."
The Schwebach Farm's primary crops are 33 acres of pinto beans, 30 acres of sweet corn and nearly five acres of other vegetables -- tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, beets, peas, onions, carrots, potatoes, kale, cantaloupe and watermelons. The farm is currently in the middle of a two-month steady harvest of sweet corn. Pinto bean harvest usually starts around Labor Day. The sale stand at the farm usually opens just about the time corn is harvested. They sell at the farm, as well as some area farmers' markets and roadside stands. The farm's website let's people throughout the area know where they can find produce from the farm.
"Our community is not a real wealthy bunch of folks around here," Dean Schwebach said, adding "We try to grow food that is affordable for the community."
Dean Schwebach noted the Estancia Valley is facing problems with the quantity of water and quality as well. The Schwebachs have 74 acres of subsurface drip irrigation. The farm irrigates 92 acres overall.
"Our water quality has gotten worse because we are pumping deeper," he said. "The drip is the only thing saving us right now."
Some of Schwebach's buyers are wholesalers in Albuquerque. That has drawn the Schwebach farm into the broader realm of tighter food-safety regulations filtering down to the farm. "Before too long they are going to do a food-safety audit so we are preparing ourselves for that," he said.
N.M. DAIRY GROWTH SLOWING
While some families have been around for decades and have seen the changes in agriculture along Route 66, other farmers are more recent in the area.
Luke Woelber, 36, and his father, John, are starting to grow some crops around Moriarty, mainly to support their own dairy operation outside of Belen, N.M. The Woelber dairy, built in 2005, is just east of the Rio Grande Valley about 40 miles south of Albuquerque.
The Woelbers moved to Belen in 2000 from Texas with an opportunity lease a facility there. They had 100 cows when they started. Now they have 2,700 milking head and farm about 1,000 acres near Moriarty that raises mostly corn for silage.
"We're new to the game," Luke Woelber said. "This is only our third year farming. We're learning to grow corn. We were always an operation that bought our silage."
The Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico are attractive for dairy producers because of the climate. There is little humidity and the evenings cool down, regardless of afternoon heat. "It's cow friendly, cow-comfortable," he said. "We always have a breeze to cool down in the evening."
Water problems have taken some of the luster away from dairy farming in New Mexico. Over-appropriated basins have left landowners to purchase the right to pump water even if there are no guarantees the water is there. That has led to significantly higher values to buy water or water rights.
New Mexico has about 320,000 dairy cows statewide, which jumped by more than 100,000 milking cows in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, the size of the state's milking herd has changed little since the 2002 Ag Census.
"At one time it was probably a very good place to come in and build, but in the last 10 years it has become cost-prohibitive because you have those water-right fees on top of it," Luke Woelber said.
Much of New Mexico remains in drought, but conditions have changed dramatically since the latter part of 2013. Most of the state has shifted from being in extreme drought to being in an abnormally dry or moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Rains were frequent throughout most of July.
"We get probably 90% of our moisture in July and August," Luke Woelber said. "Some years you get the pattern and some years you don't. This year it looks like we are in the pattern. We don't have much to complain about right now."
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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