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Sustainable Agriculture

Conservation-Oriented Irrigation System Feeds Healthy Range

For generations, members of the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico have farmed 23,000 acres of rangeland on which they raise crops and livestock. Milford Denetclaw, who manages a small herd of certified Beefmaster cattle, wanted to improve the quality of the forages growing on his 28-acre slice of the range to grow healthy cattle in a profitable system. To do that, he knew he needed a better irrigation system.

With a SARE farmer/rancher grant, Denetclaw devised a conservation-oriented watering system that enabled him to sustain four varieties of cool-and warm-season grasses for his cattle.

“I wanted a place where I could have my cattle for 60 days on pasture,” he said. “I want to let the cattle harvest the grass, convert that weight and market my cattle and get my return rather than the traditional way of cutting hay and baling it, with all of those other expenses and time. What I grow will eventually go back into my cattle.”

Previously, Denetclaw accessed water from a 1920s-era canal that siphoned water from the San Juan River. However, he had to send water across his neighbor's field, and the sandy soil absorbed much of it before it reached his pasture. With help from his local Extension agent, Denetclaw revamped his water delivery. He built a head gate from a main irrigation canal and directed water to his fields via gated pipe. Gated pipes feature hole-pocked slidegates that regulate water flow.

In the first year, Denetclaw harvested two cuttings of hay. By the second year, he ran his cattle on the pasture through the winter, an unusual feat.

Denetclaw is pleased that he can now segregate his herd from those that run on the Navajo Nation rangeland, maintaining their certified bloodline. “Most of the Navajo Nation is open range with no real way of managing it,” Denetclaw said. “Watering holes are a common gathering area for livestock, and your livestock co-mingle with others.”

Denetclaw demonstrated his renovations to other Navajo ranchers and presented a slide show during the annual conference of the Navajo Nation Soil and Water Conservation District. “As far as water delivery goes, I couldn't ask for anything more,” Denetclaw said.


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